As you are no doubt aware, severe winter storms across much of this country have led to numerous roof collapses due to the unusual amount of snow and ice buildup. In Massachusetts alone, during one 36-hour period, there were over 70 reports of roof collapses or buildings with potential structural damage from the weight of snow and ice loads on roofs. In a normal winter season, there may be a handful of such events, making this season’s heavy snowfall extremely unusual. Hopefully, media attention urging homeowners and businesses to safely remove snow and ice when they can will help reduce the number of future collapses.
While I’m not aware of any claims that have been made against our insureds alleging that negligent design was the cause of any of these collapses, these events are good reminders of how sound risk management practices can assist in avoiding potential claims and disputes.
Be aware of statutes of repose
One reason we are not predicting a high number of roof collapse claims is that most state legislatures have enacted statutes of repose preventing the filing of claims involving property damage or personal injury after a set period of time following the completion of an improvement to real property. Thus, in most states, design professionals are protected from claims on structures designed more than six or ten years ago, depending on the law of the local jurisdiction. Statutes vary from state to state and you should be aware of the statutes that apply to projects you design. Our website that provides a state-by-state list of these statutes of repose.
The standard of care also protects design professionals. Even if codes have changed over the years, the common law standard of care applied to the performance of professional design services is “a duty to exercise the degree of skill and care used by members of Consultant’s profession practicing under similar circumstances at the same time and in the same locality.” Thus, if a structure was designed to code, even if the codes have changed, the design professional will be judged by the standards in place at the time of the design, not at the time of the loss. And extreme weather that was not anticipated by codes should not result in a design firm being held negligent for the collapse or resulting damage. Be wary of changing the common law standard of care in your professional services agreements. A broader standard of care may increase your exposure to claims.
Know local building codes
Knowledge of local building codes is essential, especially if you are designing projects in a location outside your normal area of expertise. Remember that codes may only be the minimum guide for a designer. Common sense and engineering judgment must be part of the design process. If you are interested, you can get more information on Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures from ASCE.
Be certain that you are knowledgeable about current codes and standards when designing structures. It’s possible that as winters continue to get worse, there may be changes to current standards and codes.
Lastly, if you’re asked to provide emergency services related to a collapse, look for my next blog on ways to mitigate the risks of providing services in emergency situations.