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ENGINEERS LIABLE FOR FATAL EXPLOSION

The following is a partial excerpt from an article which appeared in the Number 2, 1987 issue of Interview, a U.K. publication for consulting engineers:

Liability for a fatal explosion at a water transfer station in the North of England has been shared between the designers, contractors and client/operators, with the majority of blame – 55 per cent – falling on the designers. The court ruling, made in March this year, ahs been greeted with apprehension by the profession, as it implies that consultants have a perpetual responsibility for the safety of all projects they have designed, regardless of the level of knowledge at the time of construction.

The explosion occurred in the station’s valve house in May 1984, killing 16 visitors and injuring 28. The visitors were touring the valve house and adjoining tunnel at the invitation of the water authority. A consortium of 31 victims and relatives has claimed damages against the consulting engineers, the contractors and the water authority.

The ten-week hearing centred on which parties, if any, should have identified the possibility of a build-up of methane. The engineers claimed that it was not foreseeable that a continuous flow of methane would seep into the tunnel. Expert evidence indicated that the methane reservoir was 1000 m below the ground and the release of the gas was described as "the most remote of possibilities".

The consultants did not know that a deep bore had been sunk 7 km away several years earlier in which methane had been detected. The client did know about the bore but did not believe that it had a responsibility to inform the consulting engineers.

The judge ruled that the source of the methane was not vital. He argued that the consultants ought to have known that methane was soluble in water, could be released from ground water and could travel long distances in rock.

The designers were found negligent in their failure to reconsider the design of the project in the light of "what was and out to have been discovered during construction". The judge also found the firm negligent in not keeping abreast of developing knowledge which could affect the safety of the scheme and of not passing such information to the client.

It is this particular aspect which is causing such concern, because although the decision does not create a precedent in law, which is the primary basis of the British judicial system, this interpretation of existing legislation has far reaching implications.

The client/operator was found 30 percent liable, through failing to consider the safety implications of inviting the plaintiffs into the valve house when it should have known that the water level below the weir indicated a void.

The water authority was also found negligent in not keeping abreast of the development of knowledge in areas directly and significantly affecting the safety of their operations.

The contractor was held 15 percent liable in failing to discover the gas during construction.

The consulting engineers and the contractors have reluctantly decided to appeal against the ruling, conscious that the decision would cause further delay in payment of compensation to the plaintiffs. To mitigate this, the consultants have offered to pay the plaintiff’s costs if their appeal is successful and also to bear their own costs unless they can be recovered from another party other than the plaintiffs.

 
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