Contributor: Lee Grossman
The Origins – United States v. Spearin
In United States v. Spearin, 248 U.S. 132, 39 S.Ct. 59 (1918), the United States wanted to build a dry dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Spearin was hired as the contractor and given plans and specifications that were prepared by the government. The site selected by the United States was intersected by a six-foot brick sewer, which was located approximately 40 feet from the proposed excavation area for the dry dock. The sewer intersected the area that was set aside by the plans for the contractor’s operations. The sewer needed to be diverted and reconnected with a seven-foot sewer, which emptied into the Wallabout Basin and the East River.
About a year after the six-foot sewer was relocated, the area received heavy rain at the same time as high tide. This forced water back into the sewer and the internal pressure that built up broke the sewer at several places where it was relocated. This flooded the dry dock. It was discovered there was a dam in the seven-foot sewer (the non-relocated sewer). The dam had been the primary cause that allowed water pressure to build up inside the six-foot sewer (the relocated sewer). Both sewers were shown on city sewer plans but the seven-foot sewer did not include any indication of the dam. Rather, the seven-foot sewer appeared unobstructed until it reached the Wallabout Basin. The government officials, including the architect, were not aware of the dam, but were aware the flooded area had been prone to flooding in the past. This fact was never shared with Spearin before or during his work.
Spearin made a superficial review of the project site and the plans before beginning his work. There was nothing that Spearin would have observed to alert him to the dam in the seven-foot sewer without excavating the area around and in the seven-foot sewer. The government insisted Spearin assumed responsibility for fixing the sewers even without knowing about the dam. Spearin insisted the current sewer plans would not allow Spearin to complete the work properly. The government fired Spearin and hired another contractor. The dry dock plans were drastically changed for the second contractor and the sewer plans were reconstructed to modify the flow of water during high tide.
The case between the United States and Spearin was brought to trial and the result was appealed several times. The United States Supreme Court eventually sided with Spearin, handing down what we now refer to as the Spearin Doctrine.
The Spearin Doctrine
The Spearin Doctrine is a basic concept. Well, basic as far as construction projects go. An owner of property wants to develop a project or building. The owner hires an architect to draft plans for the project. The owner hires a general contractor who has an opportunity to review the plans and visit the project site. The general contractor may hire several subcontractors who also review the plans as those plans apply to the subcontractors’ respective trades. The general contractor and all subcontractors follow the plans. The owner inspects the work and accepts it.
Some time later, a defect shows up in the project that causes damage or has the potential to cause damage. The owner sues the contractor for negligence in failing to follow the plans. The contractor is able to prove that it followed the contract plans to the letter. The Spearin Doctrine holds that the contractor is not liable for damages to the owner if the contractor followed defective plans and specifications. “[I]f the contractor is bound to build according to plans and specifications prepared by the owner, the contractor will not be responsible for the consequences of defects in the plans and specifications.” Spearin, 248 U.S. at 136, 39 S.Ct. at 61.
Limits On The Spearin Doctrine
Spearin itself states “responsibility of the owner is not overcome by the usual clauses requiring builders to visit the site, to check the plans, and to inform themselves of the requirements.” Spearin, 248 U.S. at 136, 39 S.Ct. at 61. The contractor must still perform due diligence to inspect the site and conditions before starting the work.
Courts have recognized exceptions to the Spearin Doctrine which may continue to impose liability on the contractor. The contractor is not relieved of liability simply because the contractor followed the plans and specifications. Rather, the contractor must show the plans and specifications were defective or insufficient and the contractor’s reliance on these plans and specifications caused the defect. Mayville-Portland School Dist. No. 10 v. C.L. Linfoot Co., 261 N.W.2d 907, 911 (N.D. 1978).
The Spearin Doctrine may also be limited by language in the contract over who has the risk of loss prior to final acceptance of the work. Mayville-Portland School, 261 N.W.2d at 912. The contract may include implied warranties of fitness and suitability of the plans and specifications. Olander Contracting Co. v. Gail Wachter Investments, 643 N.W.2d 29 (N.D. 2002). The contract may impose responsibility on the contractor to view the local conditions of the project and determine which local conditions may affect the work if conditions are found to be different from the project plans and specifications. Id.
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