14 January 2014

Negligence: staying out of the firing line

Shared responsibility in a professional team

Professionals work in teams, formally or informally, on all sorts of projects. Where something goes wrong, it may not be clear that one professional firm is solely responsible.  One professional may have relied entirely on another to do his bit, either by agreement between them or because it naturally fitted in the other's area of expertise; or one may have appointed the other to assist. Successive advisers may have made the same mistake. Two advisers may assume that each other are dealing with an issue. If work or advice has been negligent, the client will be tempted to sue all parties and let them fight it out amongst themselves. It may come down to assessing the contributions to be made by different parties.

In Flanagan v Greenbanks Ltd (t/a Lazenby Insulation) & Cross two successive firms carried out negligent surveys to assess suitability for cavity wall insulation. The Court of Appeal said that both were liable: the negligence of the later survey had not absolved the earlier one of responsibility, nor could the second firm assume that the first had done its work correctly without checking.

Firms can improve their position if sued by including suitable terms in their conditions of engagement - subject always to the usual considerations on limitation and exclusion clauses, especially in consumer contracts. Something like this can help:

"Where other professionals are engaged by you or on your behalf (including any predecessor of ours), we will be entitled to rely on the work and advice of those other professionals and to assume that they have carried out their work with due care and skill and to all relevant standards. We will not be responsible for checking or re-doing their work, or for checking their instructions, assumptions or conclusions, unless specifically instructed to do so, and then only to the extent falling within our area of expertise. We may review or comment upon the work of other professionals where we consider it appropriate but we will not be obliged to so and by doing so we do not assume responsibility for such work. Where we engage or recommend other professionals, our responsibility for their work is limited to selecting professionals whom we believe to be reasonably suitable for the purpose. Where we engage such professionals with ourselves as principals (and not as your agents) our liability for loss or damage arising directly or indirectly from their act or default (including negligence) is limited to the amount we are actually able to recover from them. If we recommend the engagement of other professionals but you decline to do so, we will not be liable for any loss or damage which would have been avoided had such professionals been engaged."

Of course it also helps if the roles of the professional teams are clearly defined, and if each member has a proper definition of its scope of work and terms of engagement. Specifically exclude from your scope of work any high-risk areas you don't regard as part of your role, and adapt your contract terms carefully to each situation.

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