New lawsuits target the engineering firm whose principals wrote the owner of a southern Ontario hotel and retail concourse that the roof parking deck above the shops was structurally sound two months before part of it collapsed June 23, killing two women.
The families of Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, filed suit Oct. 1 in Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Sault Ste. Marie for about $5 million against engineer M.R. Wright & Associates Co. Ltd., Sault Ste. Marie, and other defendants.
The accident dramatizes the significant liability posed to engineers by catastrophic collapses of structures that have been inspected using only observation or other limited methods.
Also named in the lawsuit were the city of Elliot Lake, Ontario, and Robert Nazarian and his company, Eastwood Mall Inc. The firm is an owner of the Algo Centre Mall, in Elliot Lake, about 375 miles northwest of Toronto.
It isn't clear exactly how much liability an engineer takes on during a concerted inspection of a structure after it has been completed. Design professionals in the U.S. have sometimes stressed that the inspections performed during construction do not place them in the role of providing quality control and supervising construction. But the issue isn't completely settled, and inspections long after construction will probably be judged on a different legal standard.
The collapse in Canada came suddenly, even if its origins were years earlier.
The 32-year-old mall was part of a steel-framed structure that included a connected hotel, a ground level retail concourse and a parking level above the stores. Area residents and store owners told local media that the mall had been leaking regularly over the years.
Both Perizzolo and Aylwin were standing near a lottery kiosk inside the Algo Centre Mall. The difficulty of searching the debris, and the problems of getting proper equipment, prompted some recriminations in Ontario.
But those recriminations pale in comparison to what is being directed at the property owner and engineer.
Nazarian had retained M.R. Wright & Associates to inspect the building and recommend repairs.
Stating that it had been serving Ontario since 1961, the company in a local business directory describes itself as versatile but with only a handful of licensed engineering principals.
Another directory listing says the staff consist of three professional engineers, two intermediate engineers, eight technicians and a handful of other staff. Annual revenue is listed in one directory as between $500,000 and $999,999.
Neither M.R. Wright officials nor Nazarian could be reached for comment.
Disciplined for Errors in 2010
In 2010, the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario in Toronto disciplined M.R. Wright’s president, Robert Wood, and the firm for a design error on a bridge project.
But the biggest problems for the firm are the inspection report it filed about the parking deck in October 2009 and the letter it sent to Nazarian in May.
In the October 2009 report, based on visual inspection and photography, Wood describes the effects of years of leaking from the parking deck. It shows water ponding on the parking deck, efflorescence in the concrete but “only surface rusting on beams.”
Although there was damage to fireproofing on the beams, the firm says its inspection "revealed no visual structural concerns both with the structural steel or pre-stressed slabs.”
“The positive camber on the slabs appear to inhibit surface drainage,” it wrote. “This indicates structurally that the slabs have significant additional load carrying capacity.”
In a letter dated May 3, 2012, Wood and G.J. Saunders, the company’s manager of engineering, again addressed the issue of structural soundness.
And once again, although a permanent repair needed to be made to protect the structure, “the observed rusting at this time has not detrimentally changed the load carrying capacities of the structure, and no visual signs of structural distress were observed.”
Note: This article was updated 10/9/12 to reflect a clearer and more balanced view of issues related to liability from inspections.