When a Plan Doesn’t Come Together: Revisiting Arizona’s Adoption of the Spearin Doctrine

fleaning-tower_edited-1The A-Team was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid.  As fans of the show know, Colonel Hannibal Smith’s signature line was, “I love it when a plan comes together.”  Unfortunately, as those in construction know, owner-furnished plans and specifications do not always “come together.”  In other words, they can be defective.  In these situations, a contractor’s mere adherence to the plans and specifications can lead to an unsatisfactory project outcome.  The Arizona Supreme Court first addressed this issue in Kubby v. Crescent Steel, 105 Ariz. 459, 466 P.2d 753 (1970), where it adopted what is commonly known as the Spearin Doctrine.

The Spearin Doctrine Generally.

The Spearin Doctrine provides that the party (typically the owner) supplying the plans and specifications for a project impliedly warrants their adequacy and sufficiency.  Thus, where an owner furnishes defective plans, a contractor that follows those plans will not be liable for any resulting damages .  This doctrine, which is now the law in nearly every state, stems from the United States Supreme Court’s 1918 ruling in United States v. Spearin, 248 U.S. 132, 39 S. Ct. 59.  There, the Court held that “if the contractor is bound to build according to plans and specifications prepared by the owner, the contractor will not be responsible for the consequences of defects in the plans and specifications.”

Arizona’s Adoption of the Spearin Doctrine in Kubby.

In Kubby, an owner hired a contractor to install a metal roof on a three-sided shed in accordance with plans and specifications furnished by the owner.  105 Ariz. at 459.  The contractor did so,  but the owner refused to pay for the work because water leaked through gaps between the roof and the shed’s masonry walls.  Kubby, 105 Ariz. at 460.  The contractor subsequently sued for payment, and the owner counterclaimed for water damage.  Id.  The trial court entered judgment for the contractor after a bench trial, and the owner appealed.  Id. 

On appeal, the owner argued that the contractor’s “failure to fill the gaps by means of flashing or caulking was a breach of its warranty of good workmanship,” regardless of what the plans provided.  Id. The contractor, on the other hand, asserted that “the plans and specifications were furnished by [the owner], and they did not clearly call for caulking or flashing.”  Id. 

While the Arizona Supreme Court‘s decision in Kubby does not directly cite Spearin, it does adopt Spearin’s principles.  Specifically, the Court held that “[a] contractor who undertakes to perform a contract in accordance with plans and specifications furnished by the contractee is not liable for damages due to defects in the plans, but he must perform the work in a workmanlike manner and without negligence.” Kubby, 105 Ariz. at 460.   The Court then relied on the fact that the owner-furnished plans and specifications did not call for flashing or caulking to affirm the trial court’s judgment.  Id.  

After Kubby.

Sixteen years after Kubby was decided, the Arizona Supreme Court reaffirmed Arizona’s adherence to the Spearin Doctrine in Chaney Bldg. Co. v. City of Tucson, 148 Ariz. 571 (1986).  In Chaney, the Court first held that it is a principle of construction law that owners impliedly warrant the adequacy of the plans and specifications they furnish.  Chaney, 148 Ariz. at 574.  And unlike Kubby, the Court expressly cited to Spearin (and Kubby) in subsequently holding that “[a] contractor is also not liable for damages which are the direct result of defective plans and specifications furnished by the owner.”  Chaney, 148 Ariz.  at 574.  Accordingly, the Spearin Doctrine applies in Arizona, and owners impliedly warrant the adequacy of the plans and specifications they supply and require contractors to follow.