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Virtual Building Inspections: Timesaver or Liability Trap?

October 15, 2021

COVID-19 opened the door to virtual building inspections in Florida. The pandemic caused a backlog of requests for inspections and Legislators hope to streamline the inspection process to help building officials catch up. In a new bill that took effect on July 1st of this year, SB 1382 requires building authorities to allow requests for inspections be submitted electronically and allows building authorities to perform most building inspections remotely. While each jurisdiction may still differ slightly, this new option allows building department officials to make headway through the backup. Although growing pains can be expected as building authorities and stakeholders adapt to the new systems, electronic inspection requests and virtual inspections will help promote a faster and more efficient process of obtaining inspections and building permits.

Liability Concerns

Under Florida law, developers and contractors are generally responsible for construction defects through various theories of liability. A lot of developers and contractors rely upon the building inspection to ensure code compliance. This reliance, however, is misplaced. This is not a criticism on the various building authorities. Instead, code violations are neither excused nor approved simply because the building passed inspection under Florida law. A building owner remains free to pursue legal action against a contractor and developer for construction defects and code violations even if the building passed inspection.

While inspections remain a large component to ensure public safety, it is also important to note that Florida law does not impose liability on building authorities for negligent enforcement of the building code and inspections. Additionally, with the potential availability of virtual inspections, stakeholders should be aware of the potential increase in risk of error by the building inspector due to the need to adapt and develop new procedures during the transition period, technology limitations and other challenges related to a virtual inspection. Due to these concerns, developers and contractors should consider implementing quality control procedures for risk mitigation.

Software developers of specialized software or applications may also be a target for lawsuits. The main inquiry will revolve around whether there was a known limitation to the software that decreased the inspector’s ability to conduct a thorough inspection. The claimant may have to show that the software developers were negligent in the design of the software, or in providing it to the building departments without a warning of any limitations or shortcomings in the software system.

Limitations for Virtual Inspections

While most inspections can now be performed virtually, building authorities are not permitted to perform structural inspections for buildings that are greater than three stories, 50 feet in height, or has an assembly occupancy classification exceeding 5,000 square feet in area and maximum occupancy of more than 500 persons. A traditional, in-person structural inspection is required for buildings falling into this category.

The availability of virtual inspections is also at the discretion of the relevant building authority. It is unclear how quickly each jurisdiction will adopt virtual inspections and whether they will place individual limitations on the type inspections that can be performed remotely.

Key Takeaways:

  • Building permits and inspections for most buildings may now be submitted online via email, an online form and potentially mobile device applications.
  • Virtual inspections may not be performed for the structural inspections for threshold building.
  • Building departments and officials as well as software developers may be potentially liable for faulty inspections caused by the use of visual inspections.

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