A spate of rulings on project managers have disproved the adage that they are mere paper pushers. Their role is wide-ranging – and so are their liabilities
project managers are an unloved breed, routinely lambasted as "jacks of all trades", "post boxes" and "paper-shuffling parasites". This last comment was made by me, parodying the views of design teams in a 1999 column. In that article (26 February, pages 52-53), I suggested that the legal precedents had not caught up with the commercial reality. But is this still true, following the plethora of cases about a project manager's potential liability?

Project management still means slightly different things to different people and under different procurement routes, but most would agree that the project manager's function is to "manage and co-ordinate" rather than to execute work. Project managers do not attract much front-line legal liability – hence, perhaps, the traditional hostility from other professionals.

Project managers' duties depend, more than for other professionals, on a detailed examination of the list of services included in the project management agreement. Words in these lists such as "procure", "ensure" and even "secure" impose absolute duties on the project manager to achieve the result required, even though it may be powerless contractually to do so. For example, an obligation to "procure that the project is carried out within the cost plan" means that the project manager is liable without any further debate if the cost plan is exceeded. Project managers have not been as diligent in the past as they might have been in checking their duties.

Also, there is a big difference between a project manager that "monitors" and "manages" and one that "checks" and "supervises". A project manager that agrees the latter will pick up the liabilities that architects and engineers habitually resist.

There is nothing that can go wrong on a contract for which the finger of blame cannot be pointed at a project manager

Unless the project manager has been foolish, its usual obligation will be to exercise "skill, care and diligence" in the performance of its services. It is not expected to know everything, but is expected to "command the corpus of knowledge" that forms part of the professional equipment of the ordinary member of the profession. The difficulty for project managers is that their "profession" spans the whole of the building process and, reflecting this, their staff may include all kinds of specialists. In these circumstances, the courts will be tempted to impose the levels of skill and care that would be expected of practitioners in each of these specialist fields. This seems to be what the spate of recent cases has suggested. In particular:

  • Project managers have a duty to assess the performance of the other consultants and to report any deficiencies to the client (Chesham Properties).
  • They are expected to know enough about contract administration to ward off unmeritorious claims and enough about the law to advise on starting proceedings before limitation periods expire (Chesham Properties).
  • They must advise on suitable insurance arrangements by contractors. They are required to assess the adequacy of the insurance or obtain expert advice on it (Pozzolanic Lytag).
  • They must advise of the fire hazards of locating heat-producing equipment next to internal walls constructed of expanded polystyrene panels (Prial Valley Foods).
  • If acting as the employer's agent, they must administer the terms of JCT98 With Contractor's Design and issue certificates relating to the quality and standards of work and materials. This carries potential liability if work is defective (George Fisher Holdings).