The increased use of non-U.S. engineers and engineering firms to produce drawings for U.S. projects—with a U.S.-based professional engineer (P.E.) stamping and sealing such drawings—spotlights ethical questions, not the least of which is, "What is ‘responsible charge’?" A review of the heartbreaking odyssey of Ed Turner provides enlightenment on this issue.
In 1996, Turner, a registered P.E. in Idaho, was demoted and forced to resign from the engineering department of the city of Idaho Falls because he refused to sign and seal engineering documents not completed under his direction or by people of whom he was in "responsible charge." The ordeal, which included two lawsuits, left the 66-year-old engineer and his wife "$150,000 in debt and living off credit cards." Here’s his story.
In 1969, the California-raised, educated, and trained Turner moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho’s second largest city, to take a position with the city’s engineering department. In his first assignment as design engineer with Idaho Falls, he worked under two P.E.s, the city engineer and the public works director.
In 1980, 41-year-old Turner was promoted to city engineer. Five years later, the public works director retired.
The mayor appointed a non-engineer, a schoolteacher by education who’d been in the city’s purchasing department, to the top public works position.
One of the first things Turner’s new supervisor (the schoolteacher) did was move a non-engineer from the city’s right-of-way division into the public works department, creating a new position for him as engineering department administrator, with Turner under him.
In 1986, this administrator took over Turner’s office and Turner was moved into the general engineering and drafting bullpen. Although Turner still retained the title of city engineer, his salary was reduced.
In 1996, Turner was asked, as the department’s only P.E., to sign and seal engineering drawings and documents.
He’d had no input producing them nor any supervisory control over those who did. He refused to sign, informing both of his non-engineer supervisors that he could not, with a clear conscience, put his P.E. stamp on any drawings or documents for which he was not in "responsible charge." Doing so went against the tenets of the state’s P.E. licensure laws, which were established to protect the public’s health, welfare, and safety.
Turner was quickly demoted from city engineer to design engineer. The situation became so contentious that resigning was his only way out.
To corroborate that he was forced out and to point out Idaho Falls’s unsafe practices, the 57-year-old Turner initiated legal action. During the lawsuit proceedings, Turner and his wife took part-time, minimum-wage jobs because his lawyer wanted him available at a minute’s notice.To pay his legal fees and expenses, Turner exhausted his savings, sold personal property, and mortgaged his home. In the end, his case was dismissed, leaving the Turners in dire straits financially. He said, "My lawyer had filed the lawsuit too late and on the wrong forms!" Because of the lawyer’s carelessness, Turned sued him for malpractice in 1999.
To win this lawsuit, Turner first had to prove that the city had wronged him and that he could have won his case against it had his initial lawyer performed properly.
That was done, malpractice was proven, and Turner was awarded a judgment of $290,000. Forty percent of it went to his lawyers; legal expenses and expert witness fees consumed $100,000, and the IRS received its share.Plus, the Turners had to pay off loans to cover their living expenses during the two legal proceedings. Turner got further in debt than when he started, but he felt vindicated. He would, however, never again hold a long-term, full-time job doing engineering.
Today, Turner’s income comes from social security checks, reduced because he applied early at age 62; retirement funds from the city of Idaho Falls, also reduced because his employment was terminated early; occasional consulting engineering assignments; and odd jobs, one of which is working with local firefighter groups setting up fire camps. He also makes a small amount of money from a DVD that outlines his ordeal and the issue of being in "responsible charge." Knowing what he knows now, would he do it again? "Absolutely," said Turner.
"I did the right thing, the ethical thing.A P.E. should never seal engineering drawings if he [or she] wasn’t in responsible charge of their production and if the engineers working on them weren’t under the P.E.’s direct supervision or if flawed engineering was used in preparing them. The public’s safety is at risk."
Richard Weingardt, P.E., is CEO and chairman of Richard Weingardt Consultants, Inc., a Denver-based structural engineering firm. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.