Rebecca A. Bowman, Esq. PE –

Rebecca A. Bowman, PE, Esq.
Rebecca A. Bowman, PE, Esq.

In a recent Virginia case, an engineer was found liable for failing to investigate the nature of a pre-engineered system. In this particular case, the engineer had specified a pre-engineered rain tank system. The contractor questioned the appropriateness of using the system under the circumstances of the site. The engineer took no investigative action and confirmed his specification. The contractor complied. That system failed. The church which was his client sued. The engineer lost and appealed. The appellate court appealed.

Since the story appeared, several colleagues have asked me what I thought about the case: Was it a threat to the profession? My response has been consistent. This case came out exactly right. If anything, it was a demonstration that the judicial system still works.

I think that, instead, this case should be treasured as a lesson in humility. Regardless of the breadth of our expertise, regardless of the depth of our experience, none of us knows everything about anything.

In this particular case, for whatever reason, the engineer failed to investigate the engineering behind the pre-engineered rain tank system. The engineer appears not to have verified that the pre-engineering was completed, that the pre-engineering was completed according to modern specifications, or that the system’s contextual constraints were consistent with the site conditions. Simple questions to the supplier would have garnered answers to all those questions. The engineer failed to take advantage of available resources to prevent a problem.

This engineer was unusually blessed to have a moral contractor, who didn’t just notice concerning circumstances, he asked about them. What a treasure! I have worked with many contractors who would simply have logged the source of their concerns in their own job logs as self-protection and said nothing. In this case, rather than taking advantage of the contractor’s experience with the system, and inquiring further, the engineer appears to have “copped an attitude.” No further investigation was conducted in response to the contractor’s question. A second time, the engineer failed to take advantage of available resources to prevent a problem.

When the contractor asked the question, if the engineer didn’t want to do the legwork of investigating, the engineer could easily have picked up the phone to call the supplier. The supplier doesn’t want his product to be installed in a situation where it will not be successful. The supplier would have readily supplied the engineer with the necessary information and, likely, even recommended alternatives, especially if the alternative was some other product offered by the supplier. A third time, the engineer failed to take advantage of available resources to prevent a problem.

Three strikes and you’re out.

[We won’t even talk about the facts that the reports suggest that the engineer copped an attitude on the witness stand, too, making an unappealing witness or that juries will – consciously or unconsciously – raise the expected standard of performance when working with a church or other non-profit. Those are risks for another discussion.]

On the other hand, when I received my first solo design assignment, I was pretty much told that what I was being asked to do could not be done. I was asked to reconfigure the copper tubing in a product line to reduce the amount of copper tubing required by 20%. The first thing I did was take stock of my available resources. I had suppliers with whom I could consult. I had experienced lab technicians buried in the basement. I had experienced assemblers on the manufacturing line. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I also had experience field maintenance people.

The first thing I did was consult with the suppliers to learn about what they knew to be the limits of their products. For example, what was the smallest radius I could use before the tubing crimped?

The second thing I did was invite the lab technicians for their ideas. (They told me afterwards that, in all their years of experience, no engineer had ever asked them for input.) Perhaps because they had nothing to lose, they were willing to propose ideas outside the norm. For example, is there a reason that that valve has to be physically above that connector?

The third thing I did was invite the most experienced assemblers from each section of the line to join me for pizza at lunch. They were able to identify all the quirky sequences that made assembly difficult or increased the failure rate. (They, too, told me afterwards that no engineer had ever asked them for input.) For example, two capacitors were located so close together that soldering one frequently resulted in damage to the other.

After these conversations, I was ready to open the product and look at the copper tubing in its guts. It turned out that there was no reason that that valve had to physically be above that connector or in its current orientation at all. There was no reason that those two capacitors had to be so close together. Armed with the new, smaller turning radii that the supplier assured me would work, I sat down with the list of ideas and the lab technicians to evaluate the concepts. By using the resources outside myself that (who) were available to me, my wonderfully resourceful team completed the task ahead of schedule and reduced copper by 27%!

By the way, remember those field maintenance people I didn’t think to consult? It turns out that most of the assembly workers were women, but most of the field maintenance people were men. The field guys’ hands were larger than the assemblers, and they had trouble making repairs with some of my new, tighter clearances. So don’t forget the end users and other down the line who have to work with your designs.

The most important thing I did in that project was to give full credit to each of the people who helped. That didn’t change the fact that the liability was on my name and my shoulders, but it served not only to honor the source of some of the ideas, but also to remind others of available resources.

One of the greatest powers each of us has is the ability to tap into resources. Another of those powers is knowing what we don’t know. If we can’t find the humility to use those powers, then we are truly in a Risky Business.

Rebecca A. Bowman, Esq., P.E. is the principal of a woman-owned business in civil engineering, dispute resolution, real estate, and legal services. She is experienced in boundary law issues, engineering design and forensic analysis, construction/project management, dispute resolution, real estate, and small business start-ups. She is a registered professional engineer and a certified arbitrator, mediator, and Christian conciliator. Mrs. Bowman writes a column for the PE Reporter, “Risky Business”. She is frequent CPE lecturer (law and engineering) for a variety of providers. She received her B.S. degree in civil engineering, from the University of North Dakota, her M.B.A. degree from Oklahoma University and her J.D. degree from Duquesne University. Mrs. Bowman is involved with the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Arbitration Association, the Institute for Christian Conciliation, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, and the American Bar Association. She volunteers with Legal Aid, Family Promise, the Pregnancy Resource Center of the South Hills, MATHCOUNTS, and Pennsylvania History Day. She received the 2014 PSPE President’s Distinguished Service Award.