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The Structural Engineer's Standard of Care



Author(s) Joshua B. Kardon
Contributor(s) Joshua B. Kardon
Notes Presented at the OEC International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science, March 1999
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Year 1999
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English

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Retaining Wall Design

Author: Joshua B. Kardon, S.E. 
University of California, Berkeley

This case is an excerpt from "The Structural Engineer's Standard of Care."

A structural engineer provided design services to a subcontractor who was building a retaining wall for a developer. The subcontractor had selected a proprietary retaining wall system utilizing precast, prestressed concrete modules to be assembled into a crib wall and reinforced earth type retaining structure. The structural engineer had never designed such a wall before. The retaining wall system vendor provided sample calculations to the structural engineer as an example of how to design the wall, but the method included errors. The structural engineer used the calculation method provided. After the wall was completed, during heavy rains, a portion of the wall failed.

During the meetings and depositions that ensued, an experienced expert forensic engineer who had designed and analyzed "thousands of these walls," and who had developed his own calculation method, described the structural engineer as negligent.

The use of "canned" calculations and design approaches without understanding their application and limitations can be beneath the standard of care and can be an instance of professional negligence. However, the practice of the experienced expert, far exceeding that of a normally competent engineer, is not the standard of care. The question was not, "How did the defendant engineer's performance compare with the expert's?" It was more appropriately, "Did the defendant engineer utilize his best diligence and reasonable care given the fact that he hadn't designed such a retaining wall before?"

The answer to that second question, in this author's opinion, was ,"No." Best diligence would have resulted in the error in the "canned" calculations becoming apparent to the structural engineer. Reasonable care would have resulted in the structural engineer reverting to first principles, as described in readily accessible soils engineering texts on retaining wall design. The failure may or may not have happened anyway, given the intensity and duration of the rain, but the actions of the design engineer would have been defensible under a standard of care defense.


Cite this page: "Retaining Wall Design" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 11/1/2010 OEC Accessed: Friday, August 16, 2019 <>