Mr Justice Ramsey’s judgment in Co-operative Group Limited v John Allen Associates Limited [2010] EWHC 2300 (TCC), dismissing an action for engineers’ negligence, contains important reviews of the law on reliance by construction professionals on specialist advice and design, and causation and measure of damages in engineers’ negligence claims. It also gives useful guidance about expert qualifications and use of expert evidence of other parties.

The claim concerned settlement of the floor slab at a Co-operative Group (“Co-op”) supermarket in Kent, constructed in difficult ground conditions using vibro replacement stone columns (“vibro”). Co-op claimed that vibro could never have worked at the site and was negligently proposed by John Allen, civil and structural engineers. They argued that John Allen could not discharge the duty of care owed by relying on advice from a specialist contractor about feasibility of vibro. They also contended that John Allen had failed to carry out adequate checks of design calculations by the specialist sub-contractor engaged to carry out the vibro works, and should have advised the client to get advice from a geotechnical engineer.

After trial of the action, at which Jeremy Nicholson QC & Kate Livesey of 4 Pump Court appeared for John Allen, Mr Justice Ramsey rejected the allegation that vibro could never have worked. He held that John Allen had exercised reasonable care, and excess settlement of the floor slab had been caused by factors for which they were not responsible.

After reviewing the authorities about reliance by construction professionals on specialist advice and design, the Judge summarised the principles, holding that construction professionals can discharge their duty to exercise reasonable care by relying on specialists provided they act reasonably in doing so, as John Allen had in this case. He also held that John Allen were entitled to rely on the sub-contractor’s detailed design and calculations, and their duty to check was limited to checking input data and other matters within the competence of a civil and structural engineer.

The Judge went on to review the law on the correct approach to causation and measure of damages in engineers’ negligence claims.

Co-op had supported their case with expert evidence from a geotechnical engineer on all engineering issues. John Allen relied on expert evidence from a civil and structural engineer, and two other engineers. The Judge held that, whilst Co-op’s expert geotechnical engineer was qualified to give evidence on the practice of civil and structural engineers, John Allen’s expert civil and structural engineer had the advantage of viewing matters from the perspective of practising in that capacity, and his evidence was preferred.

The Judge also considered a procedural question on which there had been little authority: namely, whether parties can rely at trial on expert evidence in reports and joint statements on behalf of former parties to a multi-party action. In this case, Part 20 proceedings against two additional parties were compromised on Day 2 of trial. The Judge held that CPR r35.11 permits the parties to the main action to rely on written evidence of Part 20 parties’ experts even though not called at trial, but with much less weight than if they had been.