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North County: Contractor Shielded From Liability

In North County are included Vista, Oceanside, Escondido, Carlsbad and other cities. The San Diego Superior Court is located in Vista. The below case did not invove a North County business. Our law firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP representes clients in estate planning and family law cases. Please feel free to e mail or call our firm with any legal inquiries.

A business hired architects for a renovation project involving a parking lot, a retaining wall, and a loading dock. The plans, as drawn up by the architects, did not call for a guardrail along the top of the retaining wall. A construction firm completed the project according to the architects’ plans. The contractor had not broken ground until a building permit was in hand, and when the work was done a building inspector gave it his blessing with a certificate of occupancy.

When a pedestrian fell from the retaining wall and injured his knee, he sued the contractor for negligently failing to put up a guardrail. The issue for the court was whether the contractor could defend against liability on the ground that it was “just following orders (or plans, in this case).” A state supreme court sided with the contractor. The court reasoned that builders and contractors are justified in counting on the experience and skill of architects and engineers. To subject contractors to liability under the circumstances of this case would be to unfairly require contractors to follow architectural plans at their own risk and, in effect, to ensure the correctness of specifications given to them, not just their own workmanship.

Of course, there are limits on the extent to which contractors can use the plans as a shield from liability. If the results called for by the plans are so obviously dangerous that no competent contractor would follow them, the contractor can be held liable for building according to those defective plans. The individual who fell off of the retaining wall made this argument, but the court concluded that there was not enough evidence that the wall, even though it had no guardrail, was obviously dangerous.

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