Welcome to the previously published cases in the Applied Ethics in Professional Practice
Program (formerly known as the AEPP Case of the Month Club) of the National Institute
for Engineering Ethics (NIEE)!
Permission for Free Use of Our Cases
The mission of the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE) is to promote
ethics in engineering practice and education. One component of NIEE is the Applied
Ethics in Professional Practice (AEPP) program, providing free engineering ethics
cases for educational purposes. The following case may be reprinted if it is provided
free of charge to the engineer or student. Written permission is required if the case
is reprinted for resale. For more cases and other NIEE Products and Services, please
contact the National Institute for Engineering Ethics, Murdough Center for Engineering
Professionalism, Texas Tech University (All reprints must contain these statements).
The first 28 case studies available were published during the early years of this
program by Dr. Ron Bucknam at the University of Washington. Dr. Bucknam's original
program was called the Case of the Month Club. His cases are based on real world situations
and, for the most part, reflect his experiences during more than 40 years of consulting
engineering experience. Ideas for other cases came from the program's Board of Review
which consists of practicing engineers and faculty throughout the country.
Transition of Program to NIEE
In 2002, Dr. Bucknam retired from the University of Washington; at which time he and
the University agreed to transfer the program to the NIEE to continue making the program
available to individuals and groups interested in the study of ethical issues in engineering.
Thus, the National Institute for Engineering Ethics, Murdough Center for Engineering
Professionalism at Texas Tech University assumed responsibility of the program and
renamed it the Applied Ethics in Professional Practice Program.
Each case begins with a set of Facts for the case, followed by Alternate Approaches to resolving the issues presented and Survey Results from individuals who have offered an opinion on one or more alternate approaches,
and a Forum consisting of other opinions on the issues submitted by respondents; some cases conclude
with an Epilogue.
Facts: The cases contain information (facts) about actual ethical issues. The cases have
been "sanitized" to obscure the names of the individuals involved, as well as the
locations and dates of the occurrences. By agreement, the sources of the case histories
Alternate Approaches: The alternate approaches provided with each of the case histories have been selected
to represent a spectrum of solutions to the stated problem. While not all of the alternate
approaches are ethical, they are nonetheless typical of those encountered in professional
practice. Additionally, there may be more than one ethical approach to solving the
Who Responds?: In addition to practicing engineers who access the site, vote and return comments,
a relatively large number of engineering students from more than 100 schools also
vote and contribute comments. It is not generally possible to separate the respondent
sources and the results shown are therefore reflective of the combined opinions of
these two groups, except as otherwise noted.
Survey Results: The survey results are taken from the electronic responses received when the case
history was posted on the Applied Ethics in Professional Practice internet program.
Forum: In addition to voting for one or more of the suggested alternate approaches, many
respondents contributed opinions, often based on their individual opinions and experiences
with similar ethical situations. For the most part, these comments came from the practicing
engineering sector. Finally, the forum often includes comments from the program's
Board of Review members.
Epilogue: In some of the cases the approaches taken to attempt to solve the ethical dilemma,
and the results of these approaches were known and presented in the Epilogue section.
This provides an interesting counterpoint in some cases to the voting results and
general tenor of the Forum comments.
Case Numbers, Titles and a Brief Synopsis of Each Case
+ indicates the case was developed under the direction of Dr. Ron Bucknam at the
University of Washington.
** indicates that a dramatization of the case may be available from Professor Brian
Brenner at Tufts University, Medford, MA.
- Case 1001 - The Leaning Tower: A Timely Dilemma +
An out-of-state engineering expert provides services to preclude an imminent disaster,
and is fined for his efforts.
- Case 1002 - Where the Green Grass Grows +
An employee from one firm moonlights for a second firm, then moves to it, taking
most of the original firm's staff with him over a weekend.
- Case 1003 - The Joy of Being Wanted +
While interviewing for a job in a distant city at the expense of the prospective
employer, you also arrange interviews with others in that area and are faced with
the problem of what to tell the first firm and how to handle their advanced expense
- Case 1004 - Expert Impartiality: A Thing of the Past? +
An engineering consultant for a plaintiff is found to be cohabiting with the plaintiff's
attorney, and alleging to be an impartial expert witness.
- Case 1005 - The Peter/Paul Dilemma +
You are told by your boss to work on one project, and to charge the time spent to
another client's project.
- Case 1006 - The Coercive Contribution Conundrum +
Given an unexpected bonus before a local election, it is suggested strongly that
you contribute the money to a candidate likely to provide contracts to the firm you
work for if elected.
- Case 1007 - The Fetid Favor Fiasco +
An architect in a state college town hears that a local contractor working on a project
at the university is using men and materials from that project to build a garage at
the home of one of the project managers employed by the university.
- Case 1008 - To Flush or Not to Flush: That's the Question +
Putting the final touches on a toxic contaminant study report, you visit the site
being monitored one more time unannounced, only to find the owner flushing some of
the monitoring wells.
- Case 1009 - The Plagiarized Proposal +
You are requested to submit a proposal for a site investigation, and find later that
a competitor has used the scope of work you developed to obtain the job for slightly
- Case 1010 - What's the Angle? +
While doing a structural survey for the owner of a building which is about to be
sold, it is inadvertently discovered that a clip holding the granite facing in place
is almost rusted through, but contract for the survey does not include evaluation
of such items.
- Case 1011 - An Engineering Exercise +
You are contacted by a developer who wants you to step into a project in place of
another engineer whose recommendations the developer does not like.
- Case 1012 - Priming the Town Pump +, **
Pumps purchased and installed by a municipality against your better advice at the
time have failed and your firm is now expected to stand behind the original decision
of the municipality's project manager.
- Case 1013 - Hearsay: What's it Worth? +
While a subsurface investigation at the site of an alleged abandoned creosote plant
shows no buried toxic materials, a chance remark in the coffee shop by a neighbor
adjacent to the site indicates otherwise.
- Case 1014 - Water, Water Everywhere +
You are requested by a vice-president in your firm to make the results of a study
for a public agency available to other interested private parties before the report
is made public by the agency.
- Case 1015 - An Unsettling Situation +
Soils and foundations analyses indicate a proposed building complex will undergo
excessive settlements unless supported on piles. The developer wants to use cheaper
footings in hopes that detrimental effects will not occur during his ownership of
- Case 1016 - Now You Have It, Now You Don't +
Your firm is selected for a municipal design project, however instead of awarding
you the contract the city council politicians give the project to a firm with "connections."
- Case 1017 - Paying Attention to the Details +, **
You are asked to approve use of structural details which were designed for a different
project by another firm without that firm's knowledge or approval.
- Case 1018 - Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Will the Real Culprits Please Stand Up? +
The instructor in a graduate class discovers several students cheating on the final
project, but is directed to be generous in grading the students since support for
scholarships, assistantships, faculty salaries and research is dependent on keeping
up the number of graduate students in the program.
- Case 1019 - It's Just the Nearness of Who? +
A engineer employee under your supervision on a construction project develops an
apparently very close relationship with the contractor's daughter and it falls to
you to handle the situation without creating obstacles to your rapid advancement in
- Case 1020 - An Invitation You Can't Refuse +
You are demanded to attend a mediation hearing and bring your company's checkbook
to remedy a problem which occurred during construction, even though your firm was
not hired to inspect the work, and was not responsible for the problem taking place.
- Case 1021 - When in Rome... +,**
Due to a serious decline in your local project backlog, you decide to open a new
office in a foreign country, with the aid of an "associate" in that country, in hopes
of making a lot of money.
- Case 1022 - The Second Time Around +
You have an opportunity to use a specific construction technology developed for a
previous client's project on a new project for a different client, but need to assess
what fee to charge for its use.
- Case 1023 - All Trussed Up and No Place to Go +,**
Your firm is on a professional team selected to design a major project, but when
it comes time to perform the work, the prime designer elects to use their own in-house
staff to do your scope of work for the project.
- Case 1024 - Santa in the Summer +
As a student engineer on a construction project, you happen to see several of the
contractors placing items in the back of the resident engineer's pickup at the end
of work on Fridays.
- Case 1025 - Don't Bank On It! +,**
Even though you recommend in writing that your client, a bank, obtain permission
from the adjacent land owner to use his property for the installation of tiebacks
for a retaining wall for a new building, your firm is included in a law suit when
the bank neglects to contact the land owner for that permission.
- Case 1026 - Holey Smoke!! +,**
The report you are writing for the design of a proposed structure is due in a few
days when you visit the site and discover the subsurface explorations for the project
made by your staff either were made on the wrong site, or not at all!
- Case 1027 - One Good Turn Deserves Another +
Due to several requests from your client, a developer, you have provided additional
services for a project but did not obtain authorization to charge for the additional
effort involved. Now your accountant informs you that the budget for the project has
been overrun. In addition your client has just called and wants you to submit a cost
proposal for a new, but nearly identical, project.
- Case 1028 - Long Distance Operator(s) +
The Executive Secretary of your national professional organization has negotiated
a deal with a long-distance telephone provider which will allow you to accumulate
all long distance calls, charge them to respective projects and give you the option
to add a surcharge in whatever percentage amount you choose.
- Case 1029 - Between A Buck and a Hired Place
The executive secretary of a Public Works department has worked above and beyond
the requirements of her job for many years, but due to personal and health problems
is no longer fulfilling her position responsibilities. The Director has been instructed
to let her go, but he feels the department owes her some help, at least until she
is eligible to collect her pension.
- Case 1030 - Don't Ask, Don't Tell
An engineer is designing an equalization tank for an "explosion proof" wastewater
treatment plant. A fire code official states that the existing room is already explosion
proof, but the engineer suspects the fire code official could be wrong.
- Case 1031 - Was That "Piracy" or "Privacy"?
A manager suspects that employees are using company email in inappropriate ways.
The manager instructs the system engineer to give him access to all email files on
company PCs. The system engineer feels this may be viewed as a breach of trust, and
that employees may feel this is an intrusion of privacy.
- Case 1032 - Plains, Prairies and Porches
The City Engineer in a small town notices that a planned development may adversely
affect several of the town's poorer families. He realizes the economic benefits of
progress, but he feels sympathy for the impacted community downstream. If the leaders
of the anti-development faction somehow were to learn of the potential adverse secondary
impacts, they could raise such a fuss that development would surely halt.
- Case 1033 - Ye Olde Water Main
A small town needs to replace its existing water main, but cannot raise the funds.
The State Department of Transportation (DOT) is planning a highway reconstruction
project in the town. Because of personal reasons, the DOT engineer would like to route
the DOT project such that the state pays most of the replacement of the water main
even though this would not be in keeping with DOT policy. The DOT engineer "pressures"
his young engineer about to sit for the PE exam that she should change her design
so that the old water main would be impacted.
- Case 1034 - A Fair Deal in Fairview?
A medium-sized city has established a Community Service Corporation (CSC) for the
purpose of revitalizing the City's downtown area. A principal in a local engineering
firm was elected president of the city's CSC, receiving no compensation for any of
his services. Larger design firms are contacting smaller local consulting firms, including
the CSC president's firm, soliciting participation in the design work. Although the
CSC President has transferred leadership of his firm to his son, the CSC president
remains a principal stockholder. A competitor engineer has written letters to the
editor of the local newspaper suggesting involvement in the projects by the firm headed
by the son of the CSC president is a conflict of interest.
- Case 1035 - You Might Be a Redneck Engineer If... A project engineer for a geotechnical consulting firm is retained to help with some
soil testing before construction of a facility. The designer for the new facility
has suggested that soil testing is necessary. Under pressure, the engineer briefly
outlines the necessary testing and provides an estimated cost and the project is approved.
After his testing and geotechnical report is submitted and the project proceeds, it
becomes apparent that apart from his verbal earthwork recommendations, his geotechnical
report has largely gone unused. A good ole' boy design/construction team of questionable
expertise designs and constructs the facility. The geotechnical engineer becomes concerned
about potential liability that might come back on his firm if the buildings do not
- Case 1036 (Part 1) - In-Line Engineering—A Study in Creative Corporate Financing
In-Line Engineering has been in business in the Midwestern United States for over
30 years, and the company's owner, Sam Sliderule, P.E., wants to sell the business
to his employees and gracefully retire. This is challenge enough, but to complicate
matters, In-Line Engineering is now facing stiff competition from a new firm in town,
FBN Engineering Services. In just a few short months, In-Line's backlog of work has
plummeted and it has become clear to Sam that unless he quickly sells out to one of
FBN's competitors, say, Nemesis Engineering, he will have to release all of In-Line's
employees and close the doors. Desperate to stave off financial ruin, Sam and one
of his engineer employees draft a transition plan consisting of several components,
all geared toward improving In-Line's financial situation for the short term. Though
Sam feels the plan might accomplish a buy-out by Nemesis, he is uncomfortable with
parts of it. Sam has sought your opinion as to whether the various components of the
plan are legal and ethical.
- Case 1036 (Part 2) - In-Line Engineering—A Study in Creative Corporate Financing
Part 1 of this case presented the full text of the case study and a summary of the
results from an online opinion survey about Sam's potential actions. Noting that differences
exist in respondent opinion about the legality and ethicality of the various components
of Sam's transition plan, Part 2 further analyzes those differences. It also presents
comments and observations about the case from survey respondents and from selected
members of the Applied Ethics Case of the Month Board of Review.
- Case 1037 - What's Love Got to Do with It?
You are a P.E. enlisted as an engineering consultant for a company which is the defendant
in a legal dispute. After completing your evaluation you attend the deposition of
an engineer offering testimony on behalf of the plaintiff. You later learn that this
engineer is in a romantic relationship with the lead counsel for the plaintiff. You
have also heard that an arrangement has been worked out between the plaintiff and
the counsel such that the counsel will receive 40% or more of the award if the court
finds the defendant at fault. What should you do?
- Case 1038 - This Land is Your Land, It's Right by My Land
You are a licensed engineer who retains the services of a joint venture engineering-construction
management firm to work on a subdivision with a high public profile. Despite an accelerated/high
pressure timetable, things are moving along nicely until the joint venture firm notes
that a second, previously unanticipated, access road will be needed for the sub-division.
As you begin to work out the details of this new road, you discover that the principals
of the joint venture firm own land along the proposed route of this new road. The
value of this property will increase dramatically with the addition of the road. Is
- Case 1039 - I'd Rather Be Fishing
A field technician, working for an environmental engineering firm, is sent out to
conduct preliminary evaluation of a site. He takes samples from two drums on the property
and calls his boss to give a preliminary report. The technician is confident, based
on experience, that the contents of the drums are toxic and will thus require special
disposal. However, his boss advises the technician to merely document the existence
of the samples and nothing else. Several days later, the technician is in the area
of the site and notices a truck and crew from a remediation firm (his former employer).
The technician stops to talk to members of the crew. The technician learns that the
remediation firm was told that the content of the drums had been tested and were shown
to be clean. The technician is confident that not enough time has elapsed for a second
set of samples to have been taken and tested. What should you do?
- Case 1040 - Design/Build a TE/STE Relationship
You are the principal of a design firm recently paired with an out-of-state construction
firm to work on an intelligent design transportation system. You are unaccustomed
to your current joint-venture design-build (D/B) contract. Historically you have been
involved in design-bid-build (D/B/B) contracts in which you have a more direct relationship
with the client. This unfamiliarity turns to discomfort when you learn of some of
the field changes made by the principal of the construction firm. You think that the
suggested changes, while economically advantageous to your partnership, represent
a noteworthy compromise in quality. You are now torn between your financial/contractual
obligations to your construction firm partner and your sense of obligation to inform
the client of problematic ambiguities in the performance specs (given by the client)
that allow for the use of such low quality parts. What should you do?
- Case 1041 - Engineering Ethics in Spain—The Risky Tank
A young engineer is assigned to a project that must be completed in less than a month.
The final phase of the project requires completion of a concrete storage tank, but
none of the workers have experience with concrete. Also, the workers are all in Spain
illegally and have no medical/workers compensation coverage. The engineer's attempts
to increase safety measures on the project are met with resistance. The engineer will
receive a permanent contract upon completion of the project. What should he do?
- Case 1042 - Roman Holiday
A recent graduate is hired by a general construction firm to oversee the construction
of an office building. Design specs call for a protective coating to be applied to
the building's steel beams. The graduate observes that some beams are covered by walls
before the coating is applied. The project superintendent informs the building inspector
that the walled-in beams were coated and the inspector moves on. The graduate is concerned
about this issue, but is told by the superintendent to leave the issue alone.