General Disclaimers in Plans and Specifications

By Christopher Solop

In an attempt to avoid liability for the various deficiencies in its plans and specifications, some architects and engineers rely upon the general disclaimers set forth in the contract documents. However, the United States Supreme Court has held these general disclaimers are unenforceable as a matter of law. In U.S. v. Spearin, the Supreme Court ruled that the Owner is responsible and affirmatively warrants the adequacy of its plans and specifications and that responsibility "is not overcome by the usual clauses requiring builders to visit the site, check the plans, and to inform themselves of the requirements of the work." Similarly, in Baldi Bros. Constructors v. U.S., the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that such general contractual provisions, even including a provision which states the owner does not guarantee the statements of fact in the specifications, will not relieve the owner from liability for providing misleading information to the contractor

Neither the Owner nor the design professional can fully shield itself from liability for its errors and/or omissions in the plans and specifications through disclaimers in the contract documents. Likewise, disclaimers shifting the burden of costs associated with errors and/or omissions are also generally unenforceable. A contractor is therefore typically entitled to rely on the representations in the plans and specifications, but the contractor should nevertheless perform a reasonable site inspection and review of the plans and specifications so that obvious errors and/or omissions can be addressed prior to bidding.

When a contractor does find itself confronted with such general disclaimers and the owner and/or architect nonetheless issues a directive to proceed, the contractor must document its position with regard to the error and/or omission to protect its position. The lack of such documentation may substantially impair, if not be fatal, to the contractor’s claim for additional compensation and/or time.