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The danger of recommending materials

03/06/2011

Recommending materials can land you in hot legal water if there's an unexpected malfunction.

As a professional, you’re conscientious and willing to go the extra mile for your clients, right?

Of course you are. Being thorough and offering the benefit of your expertise and experience is, as far as you’re concerned, a given.

Well, as always, there’s a hidden danger lurking in the background. Did you know that if you specify or get involved in recommending materials as part of a project or design, you take on additional risk?

Here’s the rub: if you recommend a third-party product to your clients and it doesn’t fit the bill, or it fails completely, you could be held liable.

How recommending materials can cost you dear

If that sounds somewhat unfair, this quick example might help explain what can happen and how you could be sucked into a problem.

Let's imagine you’re an interior designer, contracted to revamp an exclusive boutique's sales floor. Initially, all goes to plan, to budget, and to your client’s satisfaction.

They’re particularly pleased with the fancy flooring. You’re chuffed with it also – it’s an integral part of the design and cost a small fortune.

It took a while to research and ‘green light’, too. Several discussions with the manufacturer, the specialist fitter, and your client were needed to establish the floor was right for the job. Fitted with care, you're reassured it'll be fine and you persuade your client it's the floor for him.

Nine months after the contract ends, however, you get an irate call from the shop owner. The floor is wearing badly and breaking up: customers are complaining and a few have tripped up. He claims it’s costing him business. He’s also claiming it’s your fault.

How? Clearly, you can’t be held responsible for the failure of the floor, can you? Your investigations into who actually is liable aren’t helped by the manufacturer blaming the fitter and the fitter blaming the manufacturer.

Not that your client cares. As far as he’s concerned, you're responsible because it was your design – and your design included recommending materials for the flooring. Just in case there was any doubt about how he feels, next thing you know there’s an ominous looking letter from his solicitor on your doormat…

How professional indemnity insurance can help

So what can be done? Defending yourself in court takes the kind of time and money that very few (if any) businesses can afford.

On the other hand, professional indemnity insurance helps fight your corner if you have it. Not only does it pay for a legal expert to represent you, but it also takes care of any rectification costs or compensation due.

Needless to say, the legal costs involved in a case like this are substantial to say the least. Not to mention the fact it could take at least a year for the insurer to recover costs and damages from the manufacturer, for their flooring not being fit for purpose.

Risk reduction

Even if you do have professional indemnity insurance, it makes sense to reduce the chance of a claim against you in the first place.

Using a simple checklist like this can help tip the balance a little more in your favour when it comes to recommending materials:

Your suppliers. What experience do they have? Do they have relevant, checkable, industry-recognised qualifications? Can you get testimonials from satisfied clients? Do they have their own insurance?

Products and materials. Are they fit for purpose? Have they been tried and tested or used extensively in similar environments?

Quotes. Have you got quotes from more than one supplier? Have you documented the reasons for yours or your client’s final choice?

Terms and conditions. Have you got any? If you have, do they state that you accept no responsibility for the performance or quality of the materials you recommend or any consequential loss arising from their failure?

Sign off. Does your client have final say? Do they give their thumbs up to each stage of a project?

This isn’t either a foolproof or exhaustive list (you know what fits your business better than anyone), but it should get you thinking – and on the front foot.

We call it risk management. And we’re quite happy to recommend it to anyone.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.

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