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The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis
A story of professional ethics and moral responsibility was publicized in an article appearing in the May 29th, 1995 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article entitled The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis focuses on the ethical and moral obligations of individuals and companies involved in the construction of a skyscraper in downtown New York during 1977.
In the early 1970 s, Citibank Corporation had begun to undertake the planning for a new corporate headquarters that would symbolize the strength and longevity of the company. In the planning phase of the construction, an engineering consulting firm headed by a Mr. William LeMessurier was employed to develop a design for the building. LeMessurier was a highly respected civil engineer with a talent for new and innovative designs. He was also a respected professor at Harvard University in the civil engineering field.
The design of the new Citibank offices was unique in that it had to be built on a plot of land with an existing Church structure. The Church agreed to grant air rights to Citibank, if Citibank would rebuild the Church in its current location. Citibank agreed, and LeMessurier was challenged with the task of designing a structure that would be elevated nine stories above the Church on four structural stilts . The 59-story skyscraper would be suspended above the Church and would represent an engineering challenge that remains unprecedented even by today s standards.
As the design progressed, LeMessurier s design utilized welded joints between all of the structural members of the building in order to protect the strength of the structure. An innovative diagonal bracing, tuned mass damper system, and welded joints would allow the structure to exceed the New York building codes in existence at the time of construction.
The building was completed in 1977 and a year later, another professor questioned LeMessurier on the design rationale. LeMessurier concluded that this design was sound, but decided to investigate, on his own, the effect of quartering winds (winds that hit two sides of the structure at the same time). New York building codes did not require quartering winds design criteria, but LeMessurier thought that it would be an interesting study. A few weeks prior to the study, LeMessurier also found out that the construction contractor for the Citibank building had substituted bolts for the welded joints in the original design. This substitution was driven by cost reductions and the time schedules of the general contractor.
The results of LeMessurier s quartering wind calculations resulted in projections of a 160 percent increase in the load placed on the structural members of the building. LeMessurier also discovered that the construction company had not taken this into consideration when substituting the bolts for the welded joints. Subsequent analysis showed that if a severe storm were to hit the Citibank building, that a total structural failure could occur. The devastation of such an accident would be horrific.
LeMessurier decided to take the discovery to Citibank and the construction company to plead for structural repairs. He proposed welded band-aids to increase the structural integrity of the building. LeMessurier feared his own loss of credibility in his profession for being associated with such significant defect, but continued forward with the presentation of the findings. Ultimately, Citibank and the construction company agreed without any hesitation to the implementation of the corrective actions. Possibly, one of the greatest civil disasters in the world was averted.
Moral Issues and Ethical Theory
Several moral issues are brought to the surface during this potential disaster. The first of which relates to the issue of individual moral responsibility versus that of organizational or corporate responsibility. In this particular case, LeMessurier had completed his job designing the building and specifying the appropriate welded joints. What responsibility did he have just to investigate his design further?
Morally, LeMessurier had an obligation to investigate any harm that could reasonably occur relative to the skyscraper. Utilitarian theory would justify this obligation based upon the fact that the morality of the decision would be determined by the severity of the possible negative consequences of his inaction (Beauchamp & Bowie 1997, p. 21). Had LeMessurier chose to shift the responsibility to the construction company and believe that it was not his problem, the consequences of his inaction could have been severe, and subsequently immoral. The ethical challenge in this situation is to take personal ownership in decisions that are made by corporate or other outside decision-makers.
Another issue surrounding this case is that of the shareholder versus the stakeholder purpose of a company. The construction company (and possibly Citibank) made a judgment to replace the welded joints with less expensive and less time consuming bolts. The change was made to benefit the shareholders through reduced costs and increased profitability. But the expense to the other Stakeholders could have possibly been incalculable. The building s occupants and the people in the surrounding neighborhoods would have paid a significant price had there been any disaster caused by the decision made by the construction company. The appropriate ethical theory for this and other cases involving potential harm is the stakeholder theory. The balance of positive benefits for all stakeholders should be maximized against the disadvantages to the stakeholders (Beauchamp & Bowie 1997, p.54).
A final ethical/moral theory exhibited in this case concerns that of the liability for harm. While LeMessurier was certainly not negligent in the design, and the construction company may have had good reason to believe the bolts were more than sufficient, who would bear the responsibility for any harm that may come had a disaster occurred?
Legally, as another party changed the original design without his knowledge, LeMessurier may have not been liable for the harm resulting from an accident. However, morally, once he had knowledge of a possible design problem, there was an obligation to divulge its existence.
The construction company should be held to the same moral standard as LeMessurier. However, a higher legal standard should be imposed. The idea of strict liability should be utilized as the construction company was in the best position to prevent harm. Despite its construction to the current building codes of the day, the construction company had the best chance to foresee and prevent harm from occurring as a result of the design change.
Our group does believe that LeMessurier had a moral obligation to investigate the possibility of a defect. Fortunately, LeMessurier took the personal responsibility to investigate the changes in his design and to take action upon his discovery of the structural issues. If this investigation had not occurred or was swept under the rug , the defect would possibly still exist and the potential for significant harm would remain.
Additionally, both moral and legal obligations to divulge and resolve the problem fell with the construction company and Citibank Corporation. This duty was owed to both companies stakeholders.
Overall, all parties involved in this incident acted in accordance with the highest ethical and moral standards possible. These facts lead to the aversion of a major disaster that could have harmed thousands of people.
Beauchamp, T.L., and Bowie, N.E. Ethical Theory and Business. 5th ed. [UOP Special Edition Series]. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
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