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I was recently reading up on the 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. It was a tragic loss of life and haunts many to this day.

The linked article does a better job of summarizing things, but here's a summarized version of what led up to the collapse:

The engineering firm (Gillum & Associates) designed the walkways to be supported on really long, threaded rods. The company supplying the rods (Havens Steel) didn't like the specified rods because they were going to be expensive and likely to be damaged during construction. Havens Steel sent an alternate design to Gillum & Associates which was used for the construction.

The alternate design didn't meet code, catastrophically failed, and led to the loss of many lives.

The Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors found Gillum & Associates guilty of negligence and revoked all of the engineering licenses assigned to Gillum & Associates and its employees.

What I'd like to understand better is why Gillum & Associates was held liable for the disaster. Wasn't it really Havens Steel's fault for proposing the alternate design to begin with? If Havens Steel had built according to the original design proposed by Gillum & Associates, then the disaster never would have occurred.

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I remember watching a long video about this in my senior seminar course. Scared the hell out of me.

The Wex Law dictionary defines negligence as:

A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. The behavior usually consists of actions, but can also consist of omissions when there is some duty to act (e.g., a duty to help victims of one's previous conduct).

Notice that negligence includes "omissions when there is some duty to act". The key thing to understand is, as the engineer on the project (i.e. the "engineer of record"), it was Gillum's duty to act in a way consistent with the standard of care required of them in their role as an engineer, and they failed to do so.

The bottom line is NOT whose drawing it was originally, or who came up with the design. Not only that (this might be controversial) but it may not have even legally mattered whether Gillum actually stamped the drawings with the design change (though the fact that they did stamp the drawings made the case against them a slam dunk). The stamp signifies something more fundamental: an attestation they were aware and cognizant of the design change.

As the engineer of record on the project, it was the responsibility of Gillum & Associates - legally, professionally, ethically, and practically - to check those drawings, and to make it known that there was a problem on the project if one were found. But even if an engineer is not the engineer of record, if they make a statement in a professional capacity that a design is acceptable without having actually looked at the change, that is negligence.

Some alternate scenarios:

  • If Havens Steel and the contractor had made and implemented the change without Gillum knowing, there would have been no negligence on the part of Gillum.
  • If Gillum had reviewed the drawing and sufficiently communicated to the manufacturer or the contractor that there was a problem, and yet the modified design was used anyway, it would have been a completely different case and although they would have certainly been part of the litigation, Gillum probably would have survived the storm.
  • If Gillum had managed their liability more effectively by explicitly stating in the contract that checking change orders was outside of their scope for the project, then it's possible that they might have escaped the episode since at that point the owner/contractor would have been deviating from the original design without approval. But even in that case, negligently stamping the design change would have doomed them.
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  • $\begingroup$ In other words it's not negligent to propose a flawed design but it is negligent to claim to have checked and approve it while you didn't. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Jan 26 '16 at 17:14
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No, the responsibility was squarely with the engineers. First, the original design couldn't be practically built. That's not negligent, but not too smart. The construction company proposed a alternate design, which Gillum then didn't object to.

I have heard different versions, where Gillum failed to respond to Havens Steels proposal, which was then taken as implicit approval, or they outright approved it. Either way, it was Gillum's responsibility to oversee the design and make sure it met the requirements and the code. Apparently, even the original design was not up to code. It's hard to see how Gillum and the engineers working for Gillum were not grossly negligent here.

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A good timeline and discussion of the events leading up to the disaster and the aftermath can be found here on Engineering.com. At the end of the article is a discussion of why Gillum (the engineering firm) was responsible and the ethics involved.

Gillum attempted to shift/deflect blame by claiming that they never received the phone calls from Havens, the fabricator and that the project management denied them on-site inspection over cost concerns.

Despite all of the other issues, the smoking gun is that two key drawings detailing the change from a one rod design to a two rod design, Shop Drawing 30 and Erection Drawing E3, were changed in January 1979. On February 16th 1979 Gillum received these two drawings, along with 40 others and returns them to Havens stamped as reviewed and approved. So not only was Gillum made aware of the proposals, they also asserted that they had reviewed and approved those changes.

It should also be noted that even the original one rod design would have been far short of the requirements of the Kansas City building code.

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At the time , my understanding was that high strength ,quench and tempered rods were specified . The contractor used hardware store threaded rod with less than half the strength without the engineers approval.

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  • $\begingroup$ I also thought there was a discrepancy between the material that was specified in the approved drawings and what was installed. Something to do with the embedded hardware in the walkway or the walkway attachment. But I am going from memory, and it was a while back. $\endgroup$ – Phil Sweet Mar 25 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ I learned about it at an ASM presentation on metallurgical failure analysis , so not in depth. Something about the correct rods were cut to the wrong length and welding was not successful so some replacement rods were used. $\endgroup$ – blacksmith37 Mar 27 at 16:03

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