CLARIFYING TERMS OF A RELEASE AND STANDARD OF CARE WHEN SUING A DESIGN PROFESSIONAL — BOTH TOUCHED UPON IN NEW FLORIDA CASE

Unknown-1The recent decision of Alderman v. BCI Engineers & Scientists, Inc., 2011 WL 3862094 (2d DCA 2011), implicitly underscores two important concepts.  First, it underscores the importance of clarifying releases of claims applicable to construction issues, especially if a party wants to be protected from the release down the road.  Second, it underscores what is required to hold a design professional—engineer or architect—liable for breach of contract.

 

 

Both of these concepts are important for different reasons.

 

 

A release is important because if a party (or non-party as Is the case in Alderman) wants to be truly protected by the language of a release, the release should be unambiguous.  Any ambiguity will simply foster a potential argument that the release does not protect the party being sued or the types of claims being asserted.

 

 

It is important to understand the legal burden / standard associated with finding a design professional liable for breach of contract.  Not understanding this burden could prevent otherwise colorable claims for design errors or omissions, etc. against a design professional from properly being asserted.

 

 

In Alderman, an owner’s residence sustained settlement damage  believed to have been the result of a sinkhole.  The owner retained an engineer to investigate the sinkhole and corresponding settlement damage.  The owner and the engineer entered into a contract for the engineer to perform a geotechnical investigation which included an inspection, testing, and the preparation of a report with the findings and appropriate repair protocol.  In the report, the engineer recommended for a contractor to perform subsurface compacting grouting to stabilize the residence against further settlement.  The report also recommended for the engineer to be retained during the remediation work to provide monitoring and oversight.

 

 

Based on the report, the owner hired a foundation contractor to perform the subsurface compaction grouting. The engineer’s budget for the monitoring and oversight during the repair work was approved by the owner’s homeowner’s insurer.  (The owner, like most owners with a homeowner’s insurance policy, was looking to recoup covered costs under the policy associated with the settlement damage/problem resulting from the sinkhole.)

 

 

During the grouting, septic tanks ruptured causing sewage to seep into the residence.  Additionally, once this grouting work was fully completed, the residence continued to experience settlement damage.

 

 

The owner settled the sinkhole claim with his property insurer and gave the insurer a release.

 

 

The owner, however, contended that the subsurface compaction grouting recommended by the engineer was not a suitable recommendation (and/or was not monitored correctly) since the work did not remedy the settlement problem.  The owner sued the engineer for negligence arguing that the engineer was negligent in the supervision and monitoring of the remediation work.  It also sued the engineer for breach of contract arguing that the engineer failed to recommend a suitable remediation protocol.   The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the engineer as to the owner’s negligence and breach of contract claims and the owner appealed to the Second District Court of Appeals.

 

 

A. The Owner’s Negligence Claim Against the Engineer

 

 

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the engineer finding that the release the owner gave to his property insurer to settle the sinkhole claim was broad enough to cover the engineer.  The release the owner gave to his property insurer included the following language:

 

 

“1. . . . By executing this General Release, Releasor . . . does hereby fully and completely release and discharge STATE FARM FLORIDA INSURANCE COMPANY (and all parent and subsidiary companies affiliated with it in anyway [sic]), hereinafter referred to collectively as “Releasees,” from any and all current or future claims, rights[,] and actions whatsoever, whether ripe or contingent, arising in relation to the filing of insurance claims by Releasor relative to or associated with insurance coverage for the [Alderman residence].

 

2. NOW THEREFORE in consideration of the payment [of the settlement amount], the receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, the Releasor agrees as follows:

(a) The Releasor does hereby . . . release, discharge, acquit, and indemnify Releasees, and their officers, directors, shareholders, executors, administrators, insurers, insureds, suppliers, distributors, attorneys, contractors, subcontractors, successors, privies, assigns, associations, parents, subsidiaries, holding companies, or partnerships of and from any and all claims . . . whatsoever including but not limited to any coverage dispute, complaints regarding claims handling or bad faith, or the termination of insurance of the Property by the Releasees which the Releasor now has or which may hereafter accrue on account of or in any way growing out of any and all known or unknown, foreseen and unforeseen, property damage and any consequences of the activities listed in paragraph 1 above. The parties agree that the terms of this Release do not impact any rights of either Releasor or Releasees from seeking damages (either tort, contract, or subrogation) against unrelated entities.”

Alderman, 2011 WL at *3.

 

 

The engineer further argued (and the trial court agreed) that the insurer approved the engineer’s budget for the monitoring and oversight services performed during the subsurface compaction grouting.

 

However, the Second District Court disagreed  for two reasons.

 

 

First, the Second District expressed that the contract was between the owner and the engineer, not between the insurer and the engineer.  The court also expressed that the fact that the insurer may have approved the engineer’s budget and may have paid the engineer from insurance proceeds (that arose between the insurance policy between the insurer and the owner), and not because of any separate contract between the insurer and engineer.  The court gave an appropriate analogy: “Here, the circumstances are comparable to an automobile insurer’s approval of a body shop’s estimate for the costs of repairs to an insured’s automobile. Despite the insurer’s approval of the repair estimate, the contract for the repairs remains between the automobile owner and the body shop, not between the body shop and the insurer.” Alderman, 2011 WL at *4.

 

 

Second, the Second District expressed that the release NEVER referenced or named the engineer. “Thus for the instrument to be effective to release BCI [engineer] or other parties not specifically named, such intent must be clearly expressed.Alderman, 2011 WL at *5.

 

 

The Second District’s ruling makes sense in that it was the owner, the insured under the property insurance policy, that negotiated and executed the release with his insurer.  It would seem inequitable for the engineer to get the benefit of the release unless of course it was specifically involved in the negotiation of the release and was an engineer that the insurer specifically authorized the owner to retain (which are unknown from the facts recited in the case).  If, however, the owner hired the engineer and the engineer simply worked with the insurer to ensure that payments would be covered by insurance proceeds, it would seem inequitable for the engineer to reap the benefits of a release that certainly did not involve it.

 

 

B. The Owner’s Breach of Contract Claim Against the Engineer

 

The trial court also granted summary judgment for the engineer on the owner’s breach of contract claim finding that the owner failed to establish that the engineer violated any standard of care based on the investigation of the problem and recommendation of the subsurface compaction grouting. The owner relied on deposition testimony of his trial expert to support that the engineer violated its standard of care and therefore breached its agreement with the owner.

 

 

The Second District maintained: “Under its contract to render professional engineering services on behalf of Mr. Alderman [owner], BCI [engineer] was obligated ‘to perform such services in accordance with the standard of care used by similar professionals in the community under similar circumstances.’” Alderman, 2011 WL at *6 quoting Lochrane Eng’g, Inc. v. Willingham Realgrowth Inv. Fund, Ltd., 552 So. 2d 228, 232 (Fla. 5th DCA 1989).  The Second District found that a question of fact remained as to whether the engineer met or breached the required standard of care.

 

The Second District’s ruling makes sense because whether a design professional specifically breached a standard of care should be a question of fact, especially if there is a testifying expert that will render expert opinions supporting the breach.  The standard of care is an an important term when determining the liability of an architect or engineer for design errors, omissions, recommendations, etc.  If an opposing party has an expert that will say the architect or engineer breached their standard of care based on a design error, omission, recommendation, etc., then a factual issue exists.

 

 

For more information on a design professional’s standard of care, please see:

http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/a-consulting-engineer-architects-protection-from-a-negligence-claim-against-a-contractor/

 

and

 

http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/a-general-contractor-needs-to-understand-certain-legal-doctrines-before-suing-a-state-including-agency-or-subdivision-and-design-professional-that-it-did-not-hire/

 

 

For more information on the scope of releases, please see:

http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/the-scope-of-a-release-in-a-settlement-and-contractual-indemnification/

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.