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What To Expect From The Fallout Following A Catastrophic Job Site Incident

Catastrophic incidents at a construction site are rare, but when they happen they have the potential not only for injury or death, but also for long-lasting legal, financial and reputational problems for a contractor.

The pedestrian bridge under construction at Florida International University collapsed March 15, 2018.

Last month, a nearly complete pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami collapsed, killing six and injuring others. The incident was sudden, unexpected and deadly.

Though the investigation has just begun, the contractors and designers involved in the project will be embroiled in legal, insurance and financial issues for years to come, Construction Dive reports, and their names will always be linked to the event, regardless of their actual liability.

Legally, the fallout from a catastrophic incident is potentially multifaceted, depending on the precise relationship between the parties involved. Contractors who execute a project according to plans that have a design error might avoid liability, which is known as the Spearin Doctrine. 

For contractors who are part of a design-build team, that doctrine might not apply. In any case, incidents that cause serious injuries or death tend to cause legal problems for everyone involved, as lawsuits cast a wide net.

Less common, but also possible, are criminal charges stemming from a catastrophic incident. Such charges are at the discretion of a district attorney and tend to occur in cases involving serious safety violation, fraud or corruption.

The financial implications of an incident can be every bit as ruinous as the legal ones, especially in complex cases that last years. Legal bills are not the only worry. 

Owners often stop payment to contractors pending the outcome of an investigation, and insurance companies are often slow to pay. Contractors often have to pay for bills related to the investigation out of pocket for years, as well as meet demands from subcontractors and material providers or risk even more legal problems.

Another important, if less tangible, impact of a major incident is reputational damage to a contractor. Owners of jobs underway might decide to terminate their relationships with the affected contractor. Getting new work might be even tougher, especially if the incident is well-known. Even for a contractor absolved of strict legal liability, an association with a disaster can seriously damage its business.