It was almost five years ago that the earth shook in Bailey's Crossroads as tons of concrete fell from the sky. When the dust settled, 14 construction workers lay dead and 34 were injured.
It took three and a half years to settle the 45 lawsuits that arose from the collapse of a midsection of the unfinished, 24-story Skyline Towers when a crane fell. The engineers and the architects blamed the concrete contractor, who in turn accused them of being negligent.
In the end, the insurance company paid out just under $1 million in claims. The building has since been reconstructed without incident.
Since the $544 million Kennedy Center was constructed there have been problems with leakage. This has led to several lawsuits, including one against the architect, Edward Durell Stone.
When he sued the government for $280,000 in architectural fees, the federal authorities turned around and sued him for $699,000 for design deficiencies plus additional costs for repair and maintenance. The case is being held up in the U.S. Court of Claims until the total repair bill comes in.
According to Victor O. Schinnerer & Co., which administers professional liability insurance for architects and engineers, the number of lawsuits for faulty design and construction has increased nearly 20 per cent a year in recent years. In 1976 three out of 10 insured architecture or engineering concerns were sued, compared with one out of eight in 1960, the firm said. Builders and developers are not covered by this type of liability insurance.
The average claim has tripled since 1960, pushing up premiums accordingly. For every $100 in premiums paid in 1974, $234 is paid now. The average annual premium cost for $500,000 to $1 million in liability coverage runs between $12,000 and $20,000 annually.
Despite spectacular collapses such as Skyline Towers, and more recently the roof of the Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center and a dome at C.W. Post University on Long Island, most lawsuits involve more mundane faults, such as the Kennedy Center's leaks.
Schinnerer's records show that only 2/10 of 1 per cent of all claims amount to more than $250,000. The average indemnity paid last year amounted to $16,750. Of that amount, 85 per cent went for property damage; 15 per cent for bodily injury.
As a result, the American Institute of Architects says a growing number of professionals are following the example of their medical colleagues and "going bare," or doing without liability insurance except where government contracts require it.
Schinnerer maintains that the increase in architectural and engineering lawsuits can be attributed in part to the consumer movement and in part to the growing instance of "no-fault" auto and divorce cases, which has made trial lawyers look for other profitable areas. The medical profession has been hardest hit, with malpractices suits, but other professions, such as architecture and engineering, are not far behind.
The American Institute of Architects, a national professional organization, says lawsuits sometimes result when untested building materials are used. The AIA also says that, increasingly, constraints of time and money lead to buildings being constructed more quickly than normal.
But the preponderance of professional liability claims against architects, Schinnerer said in 1974, "result from a failure to exercise rudimentary management control or to display sufficient competence in a given area of practice."
Recognizing, in the words of AIA president Elmer Botsai, that it is not a question of limiting exposure, but of improving competence, the organization has made upgrading its profession a primary goal. AIA is spending $1 million this year to assist young architects to become more qualified and sponsoring seminars for veterans in the business.
The National Society of Professional Engineers warned its members two years ago that it was "greatly concerned that desing professionals are not doing enough in the field of professional liability for engineers and architects and that in some manner the desing professions simply must be shaken to the point where individuals within these professions make a far greater commitment to do better work!"
Peer review has not been successul as a method of improvement because it can lead to slander suits over professional criticism by colleague, NSPE's W. J. Mckee Jr. said. One more successful remedy can be calling in an expert on building failure, also known as the architectural pathologist, he said.
The San Francisco firm of the AIA's Botsai, Botsai, Overstreet & Rosenberg, specializes in correcting the mistakes of others. He told AIA recently, "Within my limited exposure, there is a lot of fault. In 95 percent of the cases I'm aware of, the architect had (some) culpability."
The firm is usually summoned when there is a "perceived failure," such as water infiltration, in a building five to seven years old. At that stage the owners have given up on the ability or willingness of the original designer to rectify it without additional cost, and lawsuits have often been initiated.
For a hefty fee - "We're expensive as hell," Botsai notes - his company will work out a technical solution. Botsai says he will testify during the course of lawsuits, but only to the facts as he sees them not as an expert witness paid by one party. CAPTION: Picture, Skyland Towers in March 1973, the day after a crane crashed through the midsection of the building. One results was 45 lawsuits and the settlement of slightly less than $1 million of claims. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post