We (the community) need to decide what liability questions are on-topic or not for the site.

Our current liability questions, which I have locked while we resolve this meta question.

  1. Do structural engineers carry insurance for catastrophic errors?

  2. What is an engineer's liability for code changes that occur after submitting a design?

  3. Why were engineers negligent in the 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse?

Liability is an important concept for engineers to understand, especially for those who intend to receive their engineering licensure or even for those working in area where stamped and sealed designs are required.

The challenge with some liability questions is that they can quickly veer into the legal interpretation territory. Legal interpretation is off-topic for the site inasmuch as laws vary by jurisdiction and this is an engineering community not a community of attorneys.

So what types of questions do we want to allow and which ones do we want to exclude?

Related, extended chat discussion


4 Answers 4


Risk management is absolutely a part of engineering, and it's a very short jump from that to the liability. While I hope that liability questions don't become a large portion of our total question base, I don't think it makes sense to exclude them. As with all other questions if they are too broad to be answerable, or completely hypothetical, they might be closed on those grounds.

Some questions are likely to be presented in a pretty abstract format because if people are worried about liability issues, they won't want their specific concerns to be identifiable, so I think we may need to increase our tolerance a little bit (although we seem to have a remarkably high tolerance for hypothetical questions already.)

It's definitely true that for serious questions, it would be good to consult a lawyer, but engineers also have an important body of knowledge on liability issues that lawyers don't. Lawyers know the law, but an engineer who works as an expert witness will know more about specific kinds of questions that help people decide how liability is distributed. They may also know in any given industry who holds the responsibility for certain components as a matter of standard practice.

We will need to keep an eye on the quality of answers. It's easy for people to speculate without any grounding in actual experiences with liability or the legal process. As with everything, it's better for a question to have no answers than an answer that's mostly speculation.


Dave Tweed said:

anything that asks about a specific current or future situation in a specific jurisdiction should be referred to an actual lawyer.

I agree 100%. Not only are we incapable of providing legal advice, we should not even be perceived as providing legal advice. You can tell people 100 times, "I am not a lawyer; get a lawyer" and there are those who will still take any advice you offer rather than consult a licensed professional.

Hypothetical or historical case studies, we can handle. Questions pertaining to coursework, standardized testing or events in the news, we can handle. It would be irresponsible of us to accept as on-topic any question that seems to be asking for legal advice. Unless someone can come up with a very good metric, we'll have to use our best judgment in making that distinction.

There has been some misunderstanding concerning what I'm specifically recommending here for the three example questions, so I will be explicit: All three should be considered to be on topic.

  1. A basic question of the type that should be covered at some point in any accredited undergraduate engineering program. In terms of topicality, it's fine. (It may instead be "Too Broad" but I wouldn't have answered it if I thought it was irredeemable.)
  2. Hypothetical question, on topic. Even if the author has cleverly disguised their specific current or future situation and really wants legal advice, we have to consider the question as it's asked, not the motives of the author (see: homework questions).
  3. Historical question, on topic. Similar to #1, this event could be used as a case study for undergraduate students. It's not merely a legal concern but a licensing concern, and the Missouri Board will have had specific reasons for revoking that license, so it's answerable.

I think that liability is an important topic that engineers in general need to be more aware of. There's also considerable overlap between liability and ethics in general, beyond just the specific legal ramifications.

I think general questions about liability/ethics issues should be allowed, but anything that asks about a specific current or future situation in a specific jurisdiction should be referred to an actual lawyer. Questions about specific points regarding historical events — based on the official findings — would be OK.

On the other hand, it is far too easy for such questions and their answers to devolve into opinion-based discussions, which would not be appropriate for a SE site. Such discussions should be moved to chat.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think that the problem is that general questions will lack the details that will allow for answers to be valuable and on-topic. $\endgroup$
    – hazzey Mod
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 1:47

I think you are being too strict about closing question just because the answers might include legal advice and that advice might come from non-lawyers. As with all answers here, there is no absolute guarantee they are correct. Should only those with a PE license be allowed to answer engineering questions? Of course not. Answering legal questions is no different.

The second question you link to (What is an engineer's liability for code changes that occur after submitting a design?) is a good example. I found the answers to be generally well written, apparently written by people that knew what they were talking about, informative, and quite interesting. Of course I understand these aren't official legal advice, and "But your honor, it said on Stack Exchange that ..." isn't going to work.

Give us some credit for being able to evaluate the quality and validity of information we get here, just like we do everywhere else in life. This is no different than talking to other engineers around the office water cooler. Nobody is going to take that as definative rulings, but the conversation can be interesting and enlightening nonetheless. Answers here are actually better because more people will see it and the peer-review process is more likely to catch errors. Also, people's personal experiences can be useful to hear, even though they are just single examples suffering from sample size. Again, that's my business, not yours, to judge.

So in short, let's lose the nanny-attitude. If people feel comfortable answering, let them. Let others take that for whatever they think it's worth. We shouldn't be getting in the way of that as long as the discussion still relates to engineering or issues real engineers regularly face in real situations.

Lighten up.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ By "you" do you mean the community? It's not clear who you are addressing this answer to. The original meta question was phrased in order to gather community consensus. At the moment, only one of the 3 example questions is locked. And that question will be quickly re-opened once the OP provides a jurisdiction to help scope the question. And a comment has already been left to that effect $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Glen: I was referring to you, since you asked the question and you said you did the locking. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ There's a difference between locking a question and closing it. Locks are a common practice across SE whenever a question is in active discussion on the site's meta. It encourages interested community members to weigh in on the meta discussion and determine how the question on main will be handled. All three questions have had their locks released. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ Likewise, please don't read too far into a moderator asking a question on meta or taking short term action such as locking a question. My job as a moderator is to enforce the community guidelines. No one had asked the meta question yet despite an active conversation in chat about the liability questions. My job as a moderator is to serve as a proxy for enabling those discussions. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Glen: OK, then consider "you" to mean "y'all" or "us all". Either way, I hope you understand the point. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:39

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