A giant mirror approximately 10 ft high and weighing 250 pounds or more fell on diners having breakfast at a Manhattan cafe, Balthazar.
The mirror struck Arnaud Montebourg, a former French politician, on the head. He valiantly hoisted the mirror off unsuspecting diners until others rushed to help him. Montebourg was taken to the hospital and later released, sore but not hurt. Incredibly, no one was seriously injured.
Huge mirror just fell on people at Balthazar. pic.twitter.com/czHvxTtiPe— liz (@lizeswein) February 20, 2015
In this case, it's not likely that an interior designer's specification was at fault (the building was quite old and early reports suggest the wall was deteriorating). Yet this highlights the potential liability interior designers could face.
In a scenario like this one, the specifying designer would be responsible for documenting these conditions. This includes accounting for the size and weight of the mirror, pre-existing wall condition, and any special mounting requirements.
It is the interior designer's duty to document and communicate this information. In addition, they must coordinate with the contractor and vendor. It's the designer's responsibility to inform them of any conditions that could affect the installation. For example, the designer's specification should require the mirror to be mounted on proper structural support or blocking. The specification would also require hardware sufficient to support the weight.
In California and other parts of the country prone to earthquakes, the designer could be subject to even more stringent requirements. This includes adherence to all building codes, especially those designed to prevent a similar situation.
The Interior Design Professional Exam tests on topics related to many legal considerations such as liability.
In acting on behalf of their client, the interior designer becomes an agent, exposing the client to liability. So in the example of the incident at Balthazar, the interior designer would be acting as an agent to the owner or principal.
Whenever there is harm to people or damage to property, both the interior designer and the owner could be held responsible. The interior designer could be found liable for their actions or inaction. The designer could even be named a responsible third party in any claims. Because of the legal concept of agency, the designer has a fiduciary duty to act in the client's best interest and use due care to protect the public from harm.
An interior designer who failed to use due care to prevent harm could be found negligent and liable.
Interior designers who specify and sell products are always vulnerable to lawsuits involving product liability. For example, if there is a defect in a product or service that causes damage or injury, the designer can be liable – even if due to a client's misuse.
For example, every two weeks, a child in the U.S. is killed in a tip-over-related furniture incident, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“Chests and drawers are a very tempting playground for children [because] they are using the drawers as a ladder,” referring to how children will slide out the drawers and try to climb them like stairs.
Yet Ikea recalled 29 million dressers and chests after 6 toddler deaths led to numerous ongoing class-action lawsuits.
While they are often more visible, these lawsuits are not exclusive to consumer products. For example, an interior designer specifying office systems, lateral files, shelving, seating, or even designing custom furniture could face similar issues due to improper design or installation.
On a hospitality project, I once had the task of sourcing replacement crystals for a huge restaurant chandelier that had fallen due to improper installation. Fortunately, it did not fall during business hours.
The number of lawsuits over accessibility violations has risen in recent years, to the point that some states like California are passing laws to prevent serial litigation and abuse.
Starbucks has been involved in a multi-year legal battle over the height of its drink counters. The suit alleges that stores built in California before 2005 do not accommodate those in wheelchairs or scooters. The ADA and California laws require hand-off or service counters no higher than 36 inches. The Starbucks lawsuit holds that at least 50 of the 1,000-plus Starbucks stores in California violate these rules.
Even though Starbucks has since adjusted its counter design. Because the suit has not received class certification, Starbucks was subject to multiple lawsuits over the same issue, including an ongoing joint lawsuit between 4 plaintiffs.
So how does an interior designer minimize liability exposure?
While it's impossible to avoid liability completely, an interior designer can limit their exposure through good business practices and procedures.
A contract can be either expressed (written) or implied. To prevent misunderstandings, it's in both the designer's and the client's best interest to use and understand well-written contracts.
A good lawyer can be a designer's best friend – not only to help prevent exposure to liability but help the designer earn more money. A designer can use industry-tested contracts by professional organizations like ASID or AIA. They can work with their own attorney to review these templates against the laws in the designer's state or venue of the contract, such as the client's or project location.
Several types of insurance can protect a designer, including:
- General Liability
- Errors and Omissions
Errors and Omissions insurance is also known as professional liability insurance or malpractice insurance. This protects the designer from the full costs of defending themselves, including judgments, settlements, and claims.
In the example at Balthazar, if the mirror had been custom designed and failed to perform as intended, general or product liability insurance can protect the designer.
E&O or professional liability will protect the designer if there is any personal or financial harm from an act, error, or omission due to the designer's services.
This will also cover the interior designer's costs of defending themselves, even if a lawsuit is frivolous. For example, if a client sues because they blame the loss of business at their restaurant on the very colors and finishes they insisted on, a noted restaurant critic pans the food and the paint color.
An interior designer's specifications are legal contract documents. Therefore, many specification systems allow the designer to store a template or boilerplate for each specification to account for all details.
The designer should also document:
- Decisions like those made at meetings or in conversations with the client, contractor, or other parties
- Communication such as with vendors and contractors
- Construction observation throughout the project, including production or construction safety issues
Using thorough in-house documents like checklists and standard operating procedures (SOPs), a designer can also ensure that the entire staff understands the critical processes and the interior designer's contractual obligations and responsibilities.
So by planning for safety first and protection from liability second, interior designers can avoid kitchen nightmares and legal ones, too.