By Graeme Lloyd

All registered Mechanical Engineers in private should be aware of the possibility of having to defend themselves from claims arising from any alleged failure to perform an expressed or implied obligation.

Engineers should also be aware that claims involving non-compliance or errors of judgement under statutes like the occupational liability. The Engineering Council (ECSA) is also mandated to have rules for inquiry into complaints by any member of the public into an allegation of unprofessional, improper or negligent conduct by registered engineers.

The ECSA Professional Engineer registration process is based on a benchmarking peer review system with the key criteria being that, in the public’s eye, the Pr Eng. certification must always be considered a top-quality assurance performance standard.

Engineers must always demonstrate that they are working in accordance with recognized good practice. Most Professional Service Agreements provide a useful guideline against which to measure the required performance standard of competence. The following is a commonly used definition of Good Industry Practice.

“The standards, practices, methods and procedures conforming to applicable Law, and exercising that degree of skill, care, diligence, prudence and foresight that would reasonably and ordinarily be expected from a skilled and experienced person engaged in a similar type of undertaking under similar circumstances.”

Similar circumstances

Engineering must accept that they will be liable if they do not exercise a certain standard of reasonable skill nut how should this be correctly evaluated? A person’s skill is derived from the appropriate ability, aptitude, knowledge and experience of that particular individual.

An Engineer would be judged as negligent if he or she genuinely overlooked or did not foresee the possibility of consequential harm occurring, but this same possibility would be apparent to another reasonably competent engineer in similar circumstances.

Registered Professional Engineers are fully expected to show a higher duty of care and may be regarded as grossly negligent if they undertook certain work knowing full well that they did not have the necessary special skills.

The legally accepted standard or yardstick by which professional liability will be allocated is the ordinary average and not the highest level of competence or standard of care expected of members of his profession working in the same field. Engineers should be cautious about accepting that they should provide the highest professional standard of performance.

No professional is always expected to be 100% perfect. Doctors, Lawyers and Accountants are highly unlikely to provide a guarantee to clients that they will always correctly solve every problem they are confronted with.

On the dotted line

Engineers are advised to avoid signing an onerous agreement that demands that their services will be provided with whatever skill, care and diligence are required so that the final design will be fit for the purpose intended. This can possibly result in a liability claim because the client believes the obligation to achieve his or her understanding of a fit for purpose result was not fully achieved.

Engineers should carefully check if their Professional Indemnity (PI) insurance cover provides for this open-ended fit for purpose result. Certain voluntarily or additional contractually assumed liabilities may actually be excluded in their PI insurances cover. The insurer must always know precisely the nature of the particular risk they are covering.

Today’s Engineers operate in a more competitive and higher risk environment and should explain to clients that they insist on pushing for inexpensive commercial solutions, they cannot also then demand incompatible standards of durability as well as low maintenance expectations.

This article was first published as popular commentary ‘An Engineer’s View’, which is a regular feature of The South African Mechanical Engineer magazine. Graeme Lloyd has given Induna Training permission to publish the article here.

Graeme Lloyd is a Fellow at SAIMechE, FAArb (SA)