Ethics Cases

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).

History

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.

Format

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 are confidential.

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 situation described.

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

Notes:
+ 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 allowance.
  • 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 less money.
  • 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 the complex.
  • 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 the company.
  • 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 perform.
  • 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 this important?
  • 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.