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The Risk of Criminal Liability for Architects Arising from Property Disasters

The Risk of Criminal Liability for Architects Arising from Property DisastersArchitects Facing Criminal Charges for Work Errors, Negligence Is Rare

A recent article in an insurance publication discussed how the fact that criminal charges made against architects in the wake of building disasters is indeed a rare occurrence. We decided to take a look into a couple of examples when architects faced criminal liability as result of their work and the outcome of the charges made against them.

The article cites a case in 1992 against renowned architect Reginald W. Geare, who was criminally indicted in the deaths of 98 people after the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, D.C. he designed collapsed during a blizzard. The initial coroner found that the theater victims had met their deaths because of faults in the construction and design of the building, and held Geare and others connected with the building responsible for the deaths. A grand jury indicted him along with four others on charges of manslaughter although in the end none were convicted. In fact, Geare was exonerated after it was determined that the contractor had inserted steel beams supporting the roof only two inches into the walls, rather than the eight inches the famed architect had specified. But, Geare’s illustrious career was finished after the charges were made, and he ended his life five years later. (Two of the theaters Geare designed, the Apollo and Lincoln, received historic landmark status in 1979 and 1993 respectively.)

In another case involving a residential property, in 2011, German architect Gerhard Becker faced involuntary manslaughter charges for his role in installing wooden fireplaces that sparked a major fire in his Hollywood Hills home, claiming the life of a Los Angeles firefighter who was crushed in the collapse of a ceiling while attending to the fire. The case recently made headlines again last month, as the architect pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to three years of probation and a year in county jail.

Prosecutors had alleged that Becker “acted recklessly and with gross negligence,” engaging in deliberate deception and intending to evade building codes. According to the search affidavit, the building inspector determined that the fireplaces in the home were not constructed in a typical manner, which would have involved the use of noncombustible materials such as brick or stone. The fireplaces were built of wood framing and lined on the bottom, sides and top with combustible drywall that ordinarily is used for standard walls, according to the document. Ceramic tile or slate was glued to the drywall. The building inspector found that the construction “failed to meet any standards for approved fireplaces,” with one of the fireplaces vented into the interior of the mansion. The fireplaces were gas, rather than wood-burning, and allegedly were manufactured for use outdoors rather than indoors.

As stated earlier, it’s rare for an architect to be convicted in a criminal case of negligence, but it can happen. It’s far more likely for a client to sue for civil damages resulting in poor construction or a delayed project. That’s of course where Architects & Engineers (A&E) Professional Liability insurance is critical, which protects against the exposure to liability claims from alleged mistakes or negligence in the design, planning and engineering work involved in a construction project. When architects and engineers also agree to undertake construction management services, this added exposure can be covered under the A&E Professional Liability policy with a proper endorsement.

Axis Insurance Services, LLC specializes in all types of Errors & Omissions insurance, including Professional Liability for architects and engineers. We can help you choose the right balance of coverage features to maximize the value of your premium dollars. We’ll review the coverage forms available from the various insurance carriers that provide policies, helping you select the right one. Please give us call (877) 787-5258 to discuss your needs.

Sources: Business Insurance, NY Times, LA Times

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Blogged on: February 26, 2014 by Mike Smith
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