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Engineer's Contractual Duty

Illinois Supreme Court lays down the law about the duty of an engineer

On January 21, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Gordon that a design professional’s duty is described by the terms of the contract and cannot be expanded based on expert testimony offered by an opposing party. The engineering firm in this case had been hired to design the replacement of an existing bridge deck. Approximately six years after construction was completed, the plaintiff was injured when another driver lost control of the car, hit the median separating traffic, and landed on the car the plaintiff was traveling in. The plaintiff’s expert testified that the replacement of an existing bridge deck required the engineering firm to consider adding a Jersey barrier in the median to improve the bridge deck. The court held that as a matter of law the engineering firm’s duty to a third party is described by the contract and cannot be expanded by plaintiff’s expert testimony.

This decision is an important victory for design professionals. It is critical that design firms take the time to properly define their scope of services in clear and unambiguous terms so that a third party (like a judge) can determine the parties’ intent. As this case shows, it is important that design firms have the scope of services included in the contract before services begin.
The recent opinion can be found at http://www.state.il.us/court/Opinions/SupremeCourt/2011/January/110066.pdf.