Will IT soon be facing malpractice suits for failed projects?

This guest post from ZDNet's Larry Dignan asks if Waste Management's lawsuit against SAP could be the beginning of IT malpractice suits. He quotes a recent argument from TechRepublic's Justin James and provides additional resources on the subject from TechRepublic and ZDNet.

This is a guest post from Larry Dignan (right). You can read the original article on Larry's blog Between the Lines on TechRepublic's sister site ZDNet.

Does Waste Management's lawsuit against SAP indicate the beginning of a bevy of IT malpractice suits?

TechRepublic's Justin James makes that argument and it's worth noting. Earlier this week I detailed and posted Waste Management's case against SAP. Much of it revolves around promises made by SAP and Waste Management's penchant to believe them.

But here's James' big point:

I think this case is the canary in the coal mine. Regardless of whether Waste Management wins the case, if the courts allow it to go to trial, programmers are in for a rough ride. Why? If the case is tossed out - particularly on a standard "no warranty implied" contract clause in the software End User License Agreement (EULA) - it means that these pieces of boilerplate legalese provide "cover" for our failures to deliver on a salesperson's promises. If the case makes it to trial, it means that any failed project is probably fair game for a lawsuit.

James, who says he will engage in a bit of CYA in his programming, continues:

Many doctors have to fend off baseless malpractice lawsuits from people hoping to make quick cash from a settlement, since these cases can be so expensive to defend. My fear is that we will soon see this type of environment in IT.

Suing for "programming malpractice" would be like suing an artist because your portrait isn't realistic or flattering or impressive enough for your taste. I hate to sound forgiving of the high failure rate in IT, but programming is not a cut-and-dried practice at this point. It's not like designing a light switch or a stepladder, where it is quite clear if the fault lies with the user, the designer, or the manufacturer.

Even when the project fully meets the specs, it rarely meets the user's needs, since it is so hard to write a perfect project specification and requirements document. In other words, even the most perfect project could be wide open to these kinds of lawsuits.

Even worse, "programming malpractice" suits could drive out what little innovation is left in IT. Programmers will not be willing to write new software unless their company has the deep pockets and slick lawyers to protect them. Open source projects will collapse, since the lack of incorporation will make the individual contributors legally responsible.

James got slapped around a bit for overreacting, but his point is interesting food for thought.

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