Design professionals entering into contracts need to absolutely understand the standard of care they are agreeing to in the contract. The reason being is that a design professional can agree to a heightened standard of care making them contractually liable for breaches based on an ultra-technical standard of care that cannot realistically be met.
Typically, the standard of care of a design professional is: “[P]rofessionals rendering professional services are to perform such services in accordance with the standard of care used by similar professionals in the community under similar circumstances.” Trikon Sunrise Assocs., LLC v. Brice Bldg. Co., 41 So.3d 315, 318 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010). Yet, “if the professional contracts to perform duties beyond those required by ordinary standards of care, the quality of that performance must comport with the contractual terms.” CH2M Hill Se., Inc. v. Pinellas County, 698 So.2d 1238, 1240 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997).
The School Board of Broward County, Florida v. Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville, 39 Fla. L. Weekly D590a (Fla. 4th DCA 2014), is a new case that discusses the significance of the standard of care the architect agrees to in conjunction with another concept known as “the first cost” defense. Both the standard of care and the first cost defense are terms and concepts that design professionals need to be familiar with!
In this case, the architect was retained to design changes to existing buildings and design new buildings for a public school. The public owner retained the services of a separate peer reviewer to monitor and offer opinions on the design. The architect’s initial phase was to prepare preliminary designs for bidding purposes. The peer reviewer commented on the design including that a third floor balcony needed a staircase as an emergency fire exit in order to be code-compliant. The architect disagreed and suggested an alternate fire code solution. The architect thought that the public owner, which had final authority to determine the correct interpretation of the code, orally agreed with its alternate solution and the plans were submitted for bidding.
After construction commenced, the public owner determined that the architect’s alternate solution was not code-compliant and that the staircase suggested by the peer reviewer needed to be constructed. This resulted in a revision to the plans and a significant change order. As with any change order, this change resulted in the owner paying more for the construction. Other change orders due to design changes also increased construction costs. The public owner sued the architect to recoup these costs.
Two important issues were raised. The first issue was the appropriate standard of care of the architect–did the architect breach its standard of care by preparing a design that required changes to make it code-compliant. The second issue is the defense known as the first cost defense, meaning that the architect is not responsible for the costs of items left out of its original design since the owner should always be responsible for that cost based on the cost of that item if that item were included in the original design. If the cost of that item (i.e., steel or concrete) increased from the time of the original design, then the architect could be responsible only for the price increase (but not the cost of the item at the time of its original design). Or, if the omission of that item resulted in a delay, the architect could be responsible for the delay.
1) Standard of Care
The architect in this case wanted the typical standard of care jury instruction that would state that the architect is liable if it failed to perform services in accordance with the standard of care used by similar professionals under similar circumstances. The public owner, however, wanted a breach of contract jury instruction that would make the architect liable for breaching a contractual standard of care provision, in this case, for preparing a design that was not code-compliant. The public owner wanted this because this is what the architect agreed to. The contract provided:
“2.1.3 As to all services provided to this Agreement, the Project Consultant [the architect] shall furnish services by experienced personnel and under the supervision of experienced professionals licensed in Florida and shall exercise a degree of care and diligence in the performance of these services in accordance with the customary professional standards currently practiced by firms in Florida and in compliance with any and all applicable codes, laws, ordinances, etc. . . .
2.1.5 All professional design services and associated products or instruments of those services provided by the Project Consultant shall: .1 Be in accordance with all applicable codes, laws, and regulations of any governmental entity, including, but not limited to, [list of regulatory entities] with the Owner serving as the interpreter of the intent and meaning of . . . any other applicable code.”
The School Board of Broward County, supra.
Thus, the public owner wanted a jury instruction that would render the architect liable if its initial plans were not code compliant because the contract provided that the architect’s standard of care is to ensure its drawings comply with all codes, etc.
The Fourth District agreed with the owner and maintained:
“Where an express provision within a professional services contract provides for a heightened standard of care, however, the professional must perform in accordance with the terms of the contract….In other words, an architect can contractually commit to perform under a standard of care higher than the common law standard.
“We are satisfied that the parties unambiguously allocated to the architect the risk for costs and expenses attributable to design plans that were not code-compliant.”
The School Board of Broward County, supra.
*The lesson is that design professionals need to be careful and truly consider what they agree to as they can impose duties upon themselves that are more stringent than what the law otherwise imposes. This risk needs to be appreciated because more often than not architect / design professional do agree to perform a service (prepare a design) that is code-compliant.
2) First Cost Defense
Again, under the first cost defense, the architect is not responsible for the costs of items left out of its original design since the owner should always be responsible for that cost based on the cost of that item if that item were included in the original design. As the Fourth District explains:
“For example, if the school board would have paid a cost for construction in accordance with the code-compliant final design plans, an award of a COI [change order item] expense against the architect attributable to a change in the initial design plans for the same cost would put the school board in a better position than if the design services had been performed as agreed. Stated another way, if there had been no change between the initial plans drawn for bidding by contractors and the final construction plans, the school board would have been solely responsible for paying all construction expenses incurred for the renovation.” The School Board of Broward County, supra.
The Fourth District relied on and references a hypothetical stated by the Fifth District in Lochrane Engineering, Inc. v. Willingham Realgrowth Inv. Fund. Ltd., 552 So.2d 228 (Fla. 5th DCA 1989) to explain the first cost defense:
“[I]f an engineer negligently designed a 1000 square feet drain field, and it was subsequently determined that an adequate design required a 1200 square feet drain field, the owner, not the engineer, should pay for the additional 200 square feet of drain field because the necessity for the additional 200 square feet of drain field was caused by the owner’s need to dispose of the sewerage produced. However, the court then observed that this does not mean an engineer is never liable for damages that properly flow from his professional negligence. The court went on to say, if the cost of later installing the additional 200 feet of drain field costs more than it would have cost if installed as part of the original undertaking, the engineer would be liable for the difference as well as any other consequential damages. The School Board of Broward County, Florida, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).
*The lesson is that even if an architect erred, the owner cannot obtain a windfall by virtue of that error and be placed in a better position because of that error.
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