The tragic 1981 Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse received extensive coverage
in The New York Times some four years after its occurrence. Here is how a November
16, 1985 article begins:
KANSAS CITY Mo., Nov. 15--A state judge today found the structural engineers for the
Hyatt Regency Hotel guilty of "gross negligence" in the 1981 collapse of two
suspended walkways in the hotel lobby that killed 114 people.
Many of those killed were dancing on the 32-ton walkways July 17, 1981, when an
arrangement of rods and box beams suspending them from the ceiling failed. Others of the
dead and 200 injured were crushed under the structures.
Judge James B. Deutsch, an administrative law judge for Missouris Administrative
hearing commission, in a 442-page ruling, found the structural engineers guilty of gross
negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct.
One day before the judges decision, the American Society of Engineers (ASCE)
announced a policy of holding structural engineers responsible for all aspects of
structural safety in their building designs. This policy resulted from the deliberations
of an ASCE committee named in 1983 to address questions raised by the disaster.
Judge Deutsch found the project manger guilty of "a conscious indifference to his
professional duties as the Hyatt project engineer who was primarily responsible for the
preparation of design drawings and review of shop drawings for that project." He also
concluded that the chief engineers failure to closely monitor the project
managers work betrayed "a conscious indifference to his professional duties as
an engineer of record." Responsibility for the collapse, it was decided, lay in the
engineering design for the suspended walkways. Expert testimony claimed that even the
original beam design fell short of minimum safety standards. Substantially less safe,
however, was the design that actually was used.
This court case shows that engineers can be held responsible, not only for their own
conduct, but also for the conduct of others under their supervision. It also holds that
engineers have special professional responsibilities, and it seems to acknowledges
the importance of engineering societies in articulating and supporting those
responsibilities. Discuss the extent to which you think engineering societies should play
the sort of role ASCE did in this case. To what extent do you think practicing engineers
should support (e.g., by becoming members) professional engineering societiess
attempts to articulate and interpret the ethical responsibilities of engineers.