Engineers have specialized skill and knowledge on which their clients rely. When engineers are found to be professionally negligent, this relationship of reliance limits an engineer’s ability to shield themselves from liability by operating their business as a corporation. To consider why this is the case, we review several key decisions that create a duty of care between engineers and their firm’s clients.
In London Drugs Ltd. v. Kuehne & Nagel International Ltd., 1992 CanLII 41 (SCC), the Supreme Court of Canada found that employees of a company, who performed the services for which their company has been hired to complete, may owe a duty of care to the company’s customer. That is, the individual employee may be liable for any damages arising from services they negligently perform on behalf of their employer. In the case, warehouse workers were found to have negligently handled the Plaintiff’s machinery resulting in significant damages. Because the Plaintiff’s contract with the Warehouse owner contained a limitation of liability clause which restricted recovery to $40, the Plaintiff sued the owner’s employees personally. The Supreme Court of Canada found that, although the employees owed a duty of care to the owner’s customers, the contract’s limitation of liability clause logically extended to the Owner’s employees, for they were the ones performing all of the contract’s enumerated tasks.
In the construction context, this principle of an employee’s liability arose in Edgeworth Construction Ltd. v. N.D. Lea & Associates Ltd., 1993 CanLII 67 (SCC). In the case, Edgeworth, the plaintiff company, was the successful tenderer on a provincial highway contract. Edgeworth claimed that it lost money on the project due to errors in the specifications and construction drawings prepared by the defendant engineers, N. D. Lea. Consequently, Edgeworth sued N.D. Lea and its individual engineers for negligent misrepresentation.
While the Supreme Court of Canada found that N.D. Lea was liable for negligent misrepresentation, it held that the firm’s individual engineers were not liable because they only affixed their professional seals to the impugned designs. Therefore, the Court found that the tenderers in the bidding process did not rely on any individual engineer’s representations because the seal merely represented that the designs were prepared by a qualified engineer, not that the designs were accurate. Since no representations were made by an individual engineer, there was no basis for finding that the engineers had a duty of care to the tenderers (viz. Edgeworth).
The British Columbia Court of Appeal considered the Edgeworth decision in British Columbia v. R.B.O. Architecture Inc., 1994 CanLII 1740 (BC CA) and in Boss Developments Ltd. v. Quality Air Maintenance Ltd., 1995 CanLII 3213 (BC CA). In Boss, Gibbs J.A. distinguished the case from Edgeworth on the grounds that the engineer did more than simply affix their seal to a design. Instead, the engineer signed a report indicating that an aircraft was properly maintained when it was not. Despite the fact that the engineer’s employer had the inspection contract with the customer, the engineer was found personally liable. Gibbs J.A. justified his finding by writing: “only an individual can be qualified as an aircraft maintenance engineer in this field of special skill and knowledge, … it is the individual mechanic who certifies [and] whose skill is being relied upon.”
Boss was applied and extended to a firm’s engineering employees generally in Maritime Steel and Founderies Ltd. v. Whitman Benn and Associates Ltd., 1996 CanLII 5415 (NS SC) and Strata Plan No. VR 1720 (Owners) v. Bart Developments Ltd., 1999 CanLII 5428 (BC SC). In both cases, the engineers did not simply attach their seals to tendering materials –as in Edgeworth—but rather, they provided negligent services to the plaintiffs directly.
Concerning an engineer’s personal liability, Edwards, J. wrote in Bart:
It cannot be plausibly argued that a limited company purporting to offer professional services of “consulting engineers” and indicating that its employees have special skill and experience is not inducing its clients to rely on those individuals’ expertise. It is immaterial whether the client can identify that expertise with individual employees of the firm.
In other words, engineering firms cannot perform engineering services without qualified employees. As such, the firm’s employees must know that their specialized skill and knowledge is being relied upon by the customer, and therefore, they owe a duty of care to their firm’s customers generally.
In conclusion, individual engineers working for an incorporated engineering firm are not shielded from liability by virtue of their employer’s corporate structure. Likewise, engineering firms may be held vicariously liable for the negligence of an employed engineer.
To limit their liability, engineers have four options:
First, they may contractually limit their liability for damages, e.g. to the amount of fees paid. Second, they may place disclaimers on their designs to prevent other parties from unreasonably relying on them. Third, engineers can increase their professional liability insurance coverage. And fourth, engineers can supervise the construction process to ensure their designs are properly constructed.