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The rise of defensive engineering: How personal liability considerations impact decision-making

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Abstract

Based on a survey of Australian engineers (n = 275) this paper examines the impact of personal liability considerations on engineering decision-making. Almost all respondents who make high-stakes decisions saw questions of liability as having both positive (90%) and negative (87%) impacts. Our analysis shows that awareness of personal liability acts to focus the attention of many engineers on the moral dimension of their work. However, it also encourages more expensive decision-making, inhibition of innovation and professional paralysis. We argue that while personal legal liability is a legitimate way to focus engineers’ attention on the potential impact of their work, a problem arises when decision-makers are held responsible for disasters over which they had little control. The focus then shifts to ‘defensive engineering’ practices that are aimed at limiting individual liability rather than disaster prevention. Legal processes that are seen to unfairly allocate blame do not encourage practices that support future disaster prevention.

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Hayes, J., Maslen, S., Scott-Young, C., & Wong, J. (2018). The rise of defensive engineering: How personal liability considerations impact decision-making. Journal of Risk Research, 21(9), 1131–1145. https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2017.1391319

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