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This question is motivated by a question which came up recently on engineering.SE: Cracks on the wall. It may be closed in the future so I will summarize. The user posted pictures of (very large) cracks in the wall of his house and asked the community "could you please advice to do continue the construction as per proper standard or I have demolish the house and re-built again?"

A professional engineer advising this individual under the auspices of a hired firm would have certain legal obligations to the correctness of their opinion. If one were to advise this individual in a way that led to him living in an unsafe structure on Stack Exchange, what legal repercussions could they face?

In particular, is there any legal precedent (read prior court case) which absolves freely offered online advice from liability?

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    From Meta Stack Exchange. – HDE 226868 Jun 15 '15 at 21:23
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    @ I certainly suspect that you are correct, but I would be interested to know the idea has ever been held up in court. – Chris Mueller Jun 15 '15 at 23:44
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    As asked, the answer is no. There will always be room for a fact inquiry. By that I mean there is no statute that gets a person out of this type of litigation. The question is too broad because we could easily imagine a scenario where a person is legally liable for bad advice. – jqning Jun 16 '15 at 2:54
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    @jqning: That sort of sounds like saying, "No, you can always be sued." Which is, of course, always true. A better answer addresses the question of whether there is a legal safe harbor in any law or precedent for offering free advice. Especially, given the nature of SE, where the advice is given by a person who, although they may have applicable professional credentials, does not cite or reveal those credentials in conjunction with their free opinion. – feetwet Jun 16 '15 at 3:25
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    @delicate I see your point. Perhaps I worded that portion poorly (I'm not a lawyer). I was really just hoping to see a court case in which the fact that we all suspect to be true, namely that there is very little liability incurred by users on SE, has been upheld. Ic9315's answer below provides one example of such a case. – Chris Mueller Jun 16 '15 at 12:15
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+50

I imagine that under English and Welsh law, the relevant tort would negligent misstatement, as there is no contract between the parties. From Practical Law:

A claim for negligent misstatement may arise whether or not a contractual relationship exists between the parties. However, if there is a contractual relationship, it is more likely that a claim would be brought for negligent misrepresentation.

Whether or not a claim for negligent misstatement would succeed would depend on several factors. Firstly, a duty of care must exist between the parties. From the Oxford Dictionary of Law:

A negligent misstatement is only actionable in tort if there has been breach of a duty to take care in making the statement that has caused damage to the claimant. There is no general duty of care in making statements, particularly in relation to statements on financial matters. Responsibility for negligent misstatements is imposed only if they were made in circumstances that made it reasonable to rely on them (Hedley Byrne v Heller & Partners Ltd [1964] AC 465 (HL); Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 (HL).

Whether or not it was reasonable to rely on the advice is hard to say, as it depends on a number of different factors. In the light of the fact that most cases of negligent misstatement involve professionals acting in their professional capacity, it seems unlikely that a court would find it reasonable to rely on advice taken from an internet site.

Most relevant for this question, however, is the case of Gary Patchett and Karen Patchett v Swimming Pool & Allied Trades Association Ltd [2009] EWCA Civ 717. This is possibly the legal precedent you are looking for. Practical Law again:

The Court of Appeal held by a majority that, although the website made representations that it knew users would be likely to rely on, there was not sufficient proximity between the parties, and the website advised users to obtain an information pack before engaging a contractor. Accordingly, the appellants had failed to establish the duty of care that is a required element of a claim for negligent misstatement.

If a website owner does not owe a duty of care to its users, then it seems highly unlikely that one user would be found to owe a duty of care to another user.

On that basis - and with the large disclaimer that I am not a lawyer - it would seem that were one to rely on the advice given on a StackExchange site, there would be few, if any, legal repercussions for the person who gave the advice. The conclusion is to get professional advice from a professional, rather than any StackExchange site - including this one!

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The law is entirely dependent on the jurisdiction. Assuming that we are dealing with a common-law country like Australia, the UK or the US then liability can arise from three sources: the contract, statutory liability and the tort of negligence.

Contract

Well, no valuable consideration was made for the advice so there is no contract.

Statute

There may be laws in the relevant jurisdiction (which could be the jurisdiction of the asker, the answerer, the site (virtual or actual) or any/all of these) which impose a liability on the answerer. If this is an obligation to be read into a contract then see above. If this is a duty owed to the State, then it would generally be for the state to prosecute either criminally or civilly.

It may be a breach of a code of ethics of the professional's association; in some jurisdictions this may be a mandatory code with civil or criminal penalties, in others a matter for the association alone.

It is possible for the statute to work the other way and protect the advice giver - various Good Samaritan type Acts do this for people rendering medical aid at the scene of an accident for example.

Negligence

In order to establish negligence as a Cause of Action under the law of torts, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant:

  1. had a duty to the plaintiff,
  2. breached that duty by failing to conform to the required standard of conduct (generally the standard of a reasonable person),
  3. the negligent conduct was the cause of the harm to the plaintiff, and
  4. the plaintiff was, in fact, harmed or damaged.

I would say:

  1. is certainly arguable - by choosing to answer the professional may be accepting a duty,
  2. will be a matter of fact and degree - did the professional conform to the required standard of conduct , specifically, what is a reasonable standard of conduct given the nature of the forum; on the face of it this would appear to be lower then, say, a paid commission,
  3. there would need to be a nexus between the advice offered and the harm caused, and
  4. Something bad has to actually happen.

In light of my own answer:

Disclaimer: The above advice is general in nature and may not be relied upon for any purpose.

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    Doesn't #4 seem redundant? It's implied by #3. – Mehrdad Jun 16 '15 at 8:05
  • Would this apply if the advice giver doesn't claim to be an engineer, or pretends to be one? – Davidmh Jun 16 '15 at 11:21
  • @Davidmh the standard is what a "reasonable person" should do, this is higher for a professional acting in their profession. Claiming to be a professional when you aren't may be illegal on its own. – Dale M Jun 16 '15 at 20:29
  • @DaleM my question is when I am not impersonating. "I am no doctor, but apple juice will totally cure your flu/migraine/missing finger". If you, despite the warning, follow my advise and get worse, could I be liable? In other words, should a reasonable person know not to follow unbacked, anonymous advice on the internet? – Davidmh Jun 17 '15 at 6:54
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    @Davidmh With all things law there is only one definitive way to find out - do it, get sued and see what the judge thinks. – Dale M Jun 17 '15 at 7:12
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This answer provides some highlight into this topic, but it is related only to Massachusetts (USA) PEs. For any other state or country, look up the rules. But it follows this:

The MA PE board posted that the one of the Basis for Discipline is:

(1) The Board may initiate disciplinary action against a Registrant or an unlicensed individual or entity on its own or upon written complaint of any individual who alleges violation of any law or regulation within the Board's jurisdiction, including but not limited to M.G.L. c. 112, §§ 61 through 65E, 81D through 81T and 250 CMR.

(2) The Board may, after a consent agreement between the parties or an opportunity for adjudicatory proceedings conducted pursuant to M.G.L. c. 30A, discipline a Registrant if it is determined that the Registrant has engaged in, without limitation to, the following types of conduct:

(a) misconduct or any crime involving moral turpitude; fraud; deceit; incompetence; negligence; or exceeding the authorized scope of their registration; [1]

MGL Chapter 112 Section 61 states that:

A board of registration under the supervision of the division of professional licensure may discipline the holder of a license, certificate, registration or authority issued pursuant to this chapter or chapters 141 and 142 if it is determined, after a consent agreement between the parties or after an opportunity for an adjudicatory proceeding conducted pursuant to chapter 30A, that such holder has:

(1) engaged in conduct which places into question the holder’s competence to practice the profession including, but not limited to, gross misconduct; practicing the profession fraudulently; practicing his profession beyond the authorized scope of his license, certificate, registration or authority; practicing the profession with gross incompetence; or practicing the profession with negligence on 1 or more than 1 occasion;

That being said, the PE can be held liable for any thing they recommend, espiclially if it is well documented, and it clearly states that their recommendation is really wrong. For the above example, where the SE user asked about cracks in the wall - I would sound an opinion, but would suggest to go and seek an in-person inspection. Especially that later on on MGL 126/61 it is stated that the board commite is not limited:

Nothing in this section shall be deemed a limitation on a board’s authority to impose such reasonable sanctions as it deems appropriate by the board after a hearing or by a consent agreement. A person sanctioned under this section shall be subject to such other sanctions or punishment provided by law. The boards shall promulgate such rules and regulations not inconsistent with chapter 30A as necessary for the filing of charges and the conduct of proceedings.

Lastly, if you are an engineer, be responsbile for what you claim, some stuff can hurt, others can kill. Be careful in what you recommend and in what you offer. I am not a lawyer, but am an engineer. I wouldn't recommend that guy to live in that house anyhow, because to me it looks unsafe. But hey, it is only my opinion, and take on it...

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    Most of this answer doesn't address the question. Why not prune it to MGL 112.61.1 and your take on that? – feetwet Jun 16 '15 at 1:08
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    This answer is about professional discipline by a licensing board. The question is about getting sued in civil court. – jqning Jun 16 '15 at 2:51
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    @jqning: Another question references "duty of care". The licensing board (by authorization by the state legislature) establishes that engineers have a duty to the general public. So it may be legally relevant, above and beyond professional discipline. – Ben Voigt Jun 19 '15 at 23:55

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