The United States District Court for the Southern District of California has now held that the Spearin doctrine applies to design-build subcontractors where the subcontractor is expected to design a portion of their work. The case is United States for the use and benefit of Bonita Pipeline, Inc., et al. v. Balfour Beatty Construction, LLC, et al. (“Bonita Pipeline”) (Case No. 3:16-cv-00983-H-AGS).

In Bonita Pipeline, a subcontractor sued the general contractor and its sureties alleging breach of contract, breach of implied warranty, declaratory relief, and recovery under the Miller Act. The subcontractor then filed a motion for partial summary judgment against the general contractor on its declaratory relief cause of action, seeking a finding that the general contractor could not shift legal responsibility for its defective plans and specifications to the subcontractor.

The evidence presented in support and opposition of the motion showed that the general contractor provided incomplete design documents to the subcontractor at the bid stage, and expressly stated they were incomplete. The subcontractor was ultimately awarded the bid, which included design-build structural steel, metal decking, and other amenities. The parties admitted that the plans and specifications could be refined with further design, whereby the subcontract contained language stating that the subcontractor would assume risk of further change (“refinement”) of the plans and specifications. Further, the subcontract stated that the subcontractor was not entitled to additive change orders or an increase in its bid price for “refinements” resulting from the design-build process. Instead, the subcontractor would only be entitled to additional compensation for enhancements requested by the owner.

During the project the subcontractor sought additional compensation for design errors and changes, with the court noting 93 requests for information and 37 change order requests. The subcontractor also finished its work 290 days late.

The Spearin doctrine (named after United States v. Spearin (1918) 248 U.S. 132) generally holds that an owner (or here, general contractor) impliedly warrants the information, plans, and specifications it provides to the general contractor (or here, subcontractor). Citing case law that state law controls the interpretation of Miller Act subcontracts to which the United States is not a party, the Bonita Pipeline court noted that the California Supreme Court approved and applied of the Spearin doctrine, citing Souza & McCue Constr. Co. v. Superior Court of San Benito County (1962) 57 Cal.2d 508, 510 and E.H. Morrill Co. v. State (1967) 65 Cal.2d 787, 792-793. Citing Coleman Eng’g Co. v. N. Am. Aviation, Inc. (1966) 65 Cal.2d 396, 404, the Bonita Pipeline court also noted that the California Supreme Court has extended application of the Spearin doctrine to construction contracts even where there is no government entity involved.

The general contractor argued that the Spearin doctrine did not apply because the project was one of design-build, and the parties expressly acknowledged that the plans and specifications were incomplete at the time of bidding. The subcontractor, in turn, argued that it acknowledged it assumed the risk that the plans and specifications would be “refined,” but the general contractor nonetheless still impliedly warranted that the plans and specifications provided would be correct, even if incomplete.

Ultimately, the Bonita Pipeline court found the subcontractor’s position persuasive, finding that the Spearin doctrine applies to design-build projects. Regardless, the Bonita Pipeline court denied the plaintiff subcontractor’s partial motion for summary judgment, finding that there were insufficient facts in the record to determine whether the contractor’s extra work was due to errors in the plans and specifications, or whether the extra work was due to the design work expected of the subcontractor.

In support of its ruling, the Bonita Pipeline court relied on a United States Court of Federal Claims case, AAB Joint Venture v. United States, 75 Fed.Cl. 414 (Fed.Cl. 2007). In AAB Joint Venture, the plaintiff contractor won a bid to construct a military storage base in Israel, whereby the project was in a design-build format. The plaintiff was provided specifications from the government, and after construction commenced the plaintiff contractor submitted a request for information questioning the accuracy of the specifications. After further requests for information and responses thereto, the plaintiff contractor (and its subcontractors) performed earthwork using 3-inch stone fill, as opposed to a 6-inch maximum stone fill as specified in the contract. The use of the smaller fill, however, precluded use of the contract-specified density test, as the test could not be used on the smaller fill. Thereafter, plaintiff contractor sought an equitable adjustment as a result of the defective specifications and increased costs, which was denied.

The AAB Joint Venture court found that the Spearin doctrine applied to the design-build project. It held that “[t]he purpose of the specifications is to serve as a guide to the contractor … The contractor should be able to rely on a reasonable interpretation of the contract.” “The standard that must be met under the implied warranty is that the specifications will result in a satisfactory, acceptable, or adequate result; short of that, the specifications are defective and the contractor is entitled to an equitable adjustment.” There, the specifications provided a range of sizes for fill that could be used by the subcontractor, though some sizes in turn precluded use of the contract-specified density test. The AAB Joint Venture court held that the fact that the specifications allowed for some satisfactory results did not preclude a finding that they were defective. In other words, “[d]efective specifications may be found when the full scope of the dimension tolerances set forth in the specifications do not produce satisfactory results.”

The Bonita Pipeline court also relied on a Civilian Board of Contract Appeals case, Drennon Constr. & Consulting, Inc. (“Drennon”), 13 B.C.A. (CCH) ¶ 35,213 (2013). In Drennon, the plaintiff contracted with the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) to widen a road at a campground in central Alaska. Widening the road required excavating a hillside, and building a gabion wall along the cut. The hillside ultimately collapsed, and the contractor’s work was placed on suspension. Ultimately, the road was widened without the use of a gabion wall, and the contractor sought recovery for its costs during the suspension period, as well as the cost of purchasing gabions for which it no longer had use. The contractor contended that the geotechnical information provided in the BLM’s solicitation was defective. In contrast, the BLM argued that the contract was one of design-build, and that the contractor was not entitled to any recovery because of the contractor’s own faulty design.

The Drennon panel sided with the contractor, finding that the hillside would have collapsed regardless of the approach undertaken by the contractor. The court pointed out that the solicitation included a road design and specifications from the civil and geotechnical engineer. The engineer testified that the digital terrain model it utilized for its design contained inaccurate control points, and that the BLM denied the engineer’s request to perform a survey to address the inaccuracies. On that basis, the engineer testified that they intentionally added language to the solicitation that would have warned potential bidders of the inaccuracies of the model. The Drennon panel found this directly contributed to the increased costs suffered by the contractor. The Drennon panel also found that the engineer’s geotechnical report was defective, noting that the site conditions experienced by the contractor were materially different than what was described in the report.

Bonita Pipeline shows that the Spearin doctrine is still alive and well, and even permeating into modern construction projects. The doctrine’s application to a design-build project at the United States District Court level shows that it is moving of specialized venues such as the Federal Court of Claims and Board of Contract Appeals. The Spearin doctrine reaches its centennial anniversary this year on December 9, 2018.