Imagine we are the managers and legal counsel to the School District of Philadelphia. Image that we are facing a $304-million budget deficit that has, so far, seriously harmed the education provided to the city’s school children and forced us to make or contemplate making 4,000 layoffs.
Then imagine that we are seeking sources of revenue.
Let’s see. Didn’t we have a lot of cost overruns on all kinds of renovations and repairs? Isn’t there some liability that belongs to all those engineers and architects that we paid? Isn’t that what we pay them for, to design things that can be done within a specific budget?
Perhaps that is what the school district’s managers and legal counsel thought when they filed a lawsuit on July 29 in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas against over a dozen engineering and architectural practices. As reported in local media, those companies include Agoos/Lovera Architects, Arora Engineers, Blackney Hays Architects, BWA Architecture & Planning, CDI Infrastructure, Converse Winkler Architecture, Corporate Networking, The Gibson Tarquini Group, GLP Architects, Kelly/Maiello, Inc. Architects and Planners, Maitra Associates, PZS Architects, LLC, Ross Barney Architects, Schrader Group Architecture, The Sheward Partnership, SMA/SRK Architects, SMP Architects, Synertech, United Consultants, USA Architects and Planners & Interior Designers.
The lawsuit so far lacks detail. Asked if the claims made against the design firms were an attempt to help close the city’s budget deficit, Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, said “no, it is specific to the issue or errors.”
In a statement distributed to local media, Gallard said, “The school district anticipates recovering up to $2 million as a result of these suits. The district intends to pursue these actions aggressively.”
On its face, the lawsuit so far seems like a transparent attempt to use a single fact pattern involving deficient design to extract settlements from the insurers to design professionals. If it doesn't go past that it should fail.
Even in its present form such a lawsuit is disturbing. Until the district fills out its claims with more details, or exposes some kind of conspiracy involving the designers, you’d have to put the district on the list of ethically challenged owners. That type of owner must be charged a special premium based on the possibility that it would tie you up in a frivolous and speculative lawsuit.
No doubt they have some challenges at Philadelphia schools.
According to the district’s website, the school buildings are old and neglected and the capital program is underfinanced.
“In the years that capital funds were available, 1950-1980, the focus was on new construction and over 100 new schools were built,” the district's website says. “Following that building boom, there was virtually NO capital investment from 1978 – 1986, so even the newer buildings lacked appropriate capital maintenance to preserve structural and mechanical systems.
”Now the money that is available is too little to do what needs to be done.
But did the design consultants prepare so many plans so poorly, and fail to comply with their contracts in a uniformly unprofessional and neglectful style, that so many companies could be swept into a single lawsuit?
Did every single job involve a dispute with the designer?
Until the school district provides some more detail, this looks like just another effort to extract settlements. Except that this one is cloaked with false righteousness that it serves the children.
School children of Philadelphia, future engineers and architects, welcome to the American system of civil justice.