Generally, on construction projects, contractors provide an owner with a workmanship warranty. In addition, a contractor may supply the owner with manufacturer or material warranties after a project is completed. Although these types of warranties are provided by the contractor to the owner, the owner also provides certain warranties to the contractor during the course of construction. One such warranty is the implied warranty of constructability, also known as the implied warranty of fitness and plans or the Spearin Doctrine. This article will discuss the Spearin Doctrine and its applicability to construction projects.
Unless the contractor is engaged in a design-build project, the contractor is normally provided with a set of plans, specifications and design documents from the owner. The design documents may either be generated by the owner or at the owner’s request by an architect, engineer or other design professional. The Spearin Doctrine provides that the contractor is entitled to rely on the design documents provided by the owner. The contractor is bound to build the project according to the plans and specifications prepared by the owner or at the owner’s request. Under these circumstances, the contractor is not responsible for the consequences of design defects.
An owner implicitly warrants that if a contractor complies with the plans and specifications, which later prove to be defective, the contractor will not be liable to the owner for the loss or damage which results solely from the design deficiencies. In U.S. v. Spearin, the United States Supreme Court articulated the implied warranty of constructability. In that case, the Court recognized to a certain extent the contractor is bound by the design provided to it on the project and that the contractor should not be liable for defects in that design. The Supreme Court also stated that the owner’s duty to provide accurate plans and specifications is not overcome by provisions in the contract requiring the contractor to: (1) check plans; (2) visit the site; or (3) assume responsibility for the construction until the project is completed and accepted by the owner.
Many states have adopted the Spearin Doctrine and applied its reasoning to construction projects. However, not all states follow the Spearin Doctrine, but those that do often hold the owner liable for delay damages as a result of design deficiencies. If the design documents are faulty and unreasonably delay completion of a construction project, the owner may be in breach of contract entitling the contractor to additional compensation. (See Philips and Jordan v. Dept. of Transportation.)
The Spearin Doctrine is an important tool that can be utilized by a contractor to defeat alleged claims for defective construction. For example, an owner may claim that the contractor defectively constructed the roof of an office building. After forensic examination, it is determined that the design of the roof was faulty. Under those circumstances, assuming the state recognizes the Spearin Doctrine, the contractor would not be liable for structural deficiencies.
Contractual provisions in AIA documents and other construction contracts attempt to cut against the Spearin Doctrine, and courts may be less willing to look the other way when it comes to blatant design deficiencies. Therefore, the contractor should thoroughly examine all design documents prior to construction to determine their feasibility. During construction, if a design issue arises, the contractor should notify the architect/engineer and owner’s representative of any design defect immediately. Many construction contracts allow for the request for information process (RFI) which allows contractors to request information and clarification on design-related issues from the architect or engineer of record.
By understanding and utilizing the Spearin Doctrine, contractors may be able to defeat owner claims related to design deficiencies and preserve and prosecute claims for delay damages arising out of design defects.
Author’s note: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.