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Who Is Liable When Faulty Materials Cause A Construction Accident?

In June 2017, Grenfell Tower in London burned completely when cladding installed to the outside of the building caught fire. The cladding is banned in the United States, but it only comes with a mild warning in the U.K. Still, the architect who ordered the use of the cladding has come under fire for his decision to use known flammable materials as it seems to have caused a huge residential building to burn.

In this case, it is the architect under fire because he is the one who makes materials decisions. But is the architect responsible for the fire that is said to have started because of his choice of construction materials?

House construction

Improper Use Of Materials In New York City

Materials do not have to be actually used for them to cause a problem on a construction site. In June 2017, three construction workers were seriously injured on a New York City job site when a load of materials crashed down on them from an upper floor. At first, it was thought that the load of materials had detached from the crane that was carrying it and fell through the roof of the building down to the basement. However, it was later revealed that the weight of the material had overwhelmed the unfinished roof and fell through to the building’s very bottom.

In New York City, a roof is not allowed to hold any substantial load unless the roof has been approved by a certified engineer. The investigation is still ongoing in the accident, but there has been no indication that an engineer approved the use of the roof as a storage spot for heavy materials.

Who Could Be Blamed For The Fire Accident?

Authorities are still sifting through the rubble of Grenfell Tower to get answers, but the public is already considering a long list of potential product liability and building design lawsuits that could be filed as a result of this instance.

The Architect

The architect is the one who decided to use the flammable cladding, but does that mean he is solely liable for what happened? As we said, this cladding is not banned in the U.K. and using it is not illegal. In this instance, the U.K. government would seem to be as much at fault as the architect.

The Manufacturer

People involved in the investigation are pointing the finger at the manufacturer of the cladding for not warning the architect and property owner of the potential for fire. Product liability is a little different in the U.K. when compared to New York City, but a manufacturer is still held accountable for faulty products.

The Property Owner

Ultimately, the property owner is the one who is responsible for signing off on project plans and getting the project started. Most property owners have teams of people who review plans and then report any potential issues. Some argue that the property owner signed the death warrant of their own building when he signed off on the flammable cladding.

The Contractor

Was the cladding properly installed? If it was installed too far from the surface of the building, then that could enhance a possible fire issue. While this material is flammable, it is also being safely used in buildings all over the world. Could the contractor be at fault for improper installation of building materials?


Looking At Contractor Fault In Both Cases

With the Grenfell Towers example, the idea that the contractor could be to blame is not an easy argument to make. Even if the cladding had been installed improperly, it still presented a fire risk based solely on the materials it is made from. But in New York City, there is a good chance that the contractor responsible for the project was responsible for the damage done and injuries caused by the fall of the materials.

The problem that investigators will have with the New York City project is that there are two contractors working on that project together. While one of the contractors indicated that they did not have any workers injured on that site, neither contractor has confirmed whether or not their crane placed the load on the roof. The chain of command on that job site needs to be established to determine who authorized the material to be put on the roof, and whether or not an engineer approved the action.

If the roof was certified by an engineer to be able to hold the load of materials, and the contractor did not overload the roof, then it is very likely that the engineer would be liable. If there was no engineering approval, then the spotlight turns back to someone who worked for one of the two contractors.

Can Some Dangerous Material Use Be Avoided In Construction?

Construction materials can cause accidents on construction sites in many different ways. As we have seen from the Grenfell Towers, the use of potentially dangerous materials can lead to devastating consequences. In New York City, the improper storage of materials can lead to property damage and significant worker injuries. In the end, the question of who is to blame usually winds up a question to be answered in court.

The fire in the U.K. could have been possibly avoided if the cladding that was installed was outright banned there as it is here in the United States. But just because a material is legal to use does not mean it is acceptable to use it. The manufacturer of the cladding knows it presents a fire hazard, but it is presumed that the architect is aware of the problem as well. The finger of blame could be pointed at several different entities in this case, but the end result is a tragedy that could have potentially been avoided.

In New York City, an engineer has to approve any instance where construction materials are going to be stored on a raised surface past a certain height. The New York site materials collapse exceeded that height threshold, but it is unclear as to whether an engineer’s opinion was sought out before the materials were placed on the unstable roof of the building.

The Long List Of Potentially Liable Parties

Demolished house

As with the U.K. case, the New York City accident has a relatively long list of potentially negligent parties. If an engineer was consulted and the engineer approved storing materials on the roof, then that could significantly limit the list. But that does not mean the engineer is automatically at fault. If the weight of materials put on the roof exceeded the engineer’s recommendations, then the contractor would more than likely be at fault. If there was no engineer recommendation, then an investigation will have to determine which of the two contractors on-site gave permission to use the roof as a materials staging area.

In the construction industry, it takes a lot of people to make many of the important decisions that can reduce the possibility of an accident. Determining what materials to use and finding places to store them on-site sound like easy tasks, but we have examples of what can happen when those decisions are not followed properly. Workers and non-workers can get hurt, and apartment buildings can burn down and leave people homeless. Unfortunately, when accidents end up happening, another problem arises in determining negligence when construction materials cause accidents.

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