Do You Delve or Just Look?

Illustration: a man with a magnifying glass for a face looks down at a broken bridge

Do you know what QA/QC means? Do you know how these terms may apply to your work?

Very generally, quality assurance is a process, or set of directions that, if followed, is supposed to prevent mistakes. Quality control, on the other hand, is supposed to identify defects as they occur. Within each of these broad categories is the concept of inspection, which remains somewhat undefined. Some architects’ contracts, for example, only call for occasional, visual inspections, while some consultants’ contracts only require testing of major pieces of equipment and systems.

On a Virginia bridge project, the general contractor hired a consulting firm to perform QA services. The QA firm added a clause to its contract stating that in performing its inspections, it would not be liable for errors committed by the contractor’s crews. The level of inspections required by the contract was not disclosed in the court’s opinion.

As it turned out, the Virginia Department of Transportation discovered a lot of errors late in the job, requiring expensive tear-out. The contractor then sued the consultant/inspector for breach of contract. The argument was that, had the inspector done his job properly, the mistakes could have been discovered earlier and the corrections could have been done more cheaply.

The question placed before the court was essentially this: If the inspector had no liability for construction errors, then what was the inspector being paid to do? Whether the inspector caught the mistakes and reported them, or whether he missed them completely, the inspector’s contract seemed to say that he accepted no risk of any resulting financial harm because of a failure to do his job. The court had a hard time answering that question and so refused to dismiss the lawsuit.

What does this case have to do with electrical contractors? It is not uncommon for an owner or general contractor to retain the services of an EC for inspections or for QA/QC. The precise wording of what these services include can be tricky for drafting. Are the inspections meant to guarantee compliance with code and specifications? Are they meant to detect all installation errors through construction, or instead to see if appropriate testing after installation discloses a problem? Or are the inspections only required to detect obvious mistakes?

Also, very generally, inspections are designed to detect two types of construction problems: poor workmanship and failure to comply with the specifications. In federal government contracting, the standard “Inspection of Construction” clause states: The contractor shall maintain an adequate inspection system and will perform such inspections as will ensure that the work... conforms to contract requirements.

Under this language, something more than what would be normal inspections in the industry is required—namely, an inspection system that will ensure no mistakes.

If you were hired to perform inspections that would meet the federal government’s clause, what would be on your list of activities? Would you sign a contract that provided that your job was to “ensure” that the work was acceptable? For these services, would you want to add to your contract a right to review the electrical drawings and specifications to assure yourself that they comply with code or, by doing so, would you be expanding the areas of your liability to include design?

(As an aside, the literature on this subject uses the terms “assure” and “ensure,” carefully avoiding the words “insure” or “guarantee.” The terminology seems to call for reasonable efforts of inspection, and not for perfection on the part of the inspector.)

On a housing project, the following activities were included in an electrical inspection module by an outside electrical inspector. Each of the listed activities is preceded by “check for.” After you review these items, I have a few questions for your consideration.

  • Cables are terminated into outlet boxes
  • Raceway systems are complete
  • Conductors, especially equipment rounding conductors, are tied in
  • Proper outlet boxes are used
  • Outlet boxes are properly sized and securely installed
  • Metal boxes are grounded
  • Required lighting outlets are installed
  • Cables are protected from damage
  • Cables and raceways are secured at proper intervals
  • Cable sizes and types are correct and properly rated
  • Underground installations are correct

If the above-listed “check fors” were your responsibility by contract, would you assume that you would be required to inspect each and every item? If your inspection disclosed an error, would your responsibility end for that item once you reported it? How would you limit your liability for missing something? What would you do if the installation was according to the specifications, but you felt it was unsafe? What would you do if the general contractor who hired you told you to “forget about it”? If you were sued by the general contractor for not detecting a number of installation errors, what would be your defense? What does “check for” mean?

What you think a reasonable electrical inspector should do is important because the case law is unclear as to the liability of the inspector.

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