The case of Recreational Design & Construction, Inc. v. Wiss, Janney Elstner & Associates, Inc., 2011 WL 5117163 (S.D.Fla. 2011), is a recent case discussing whether an independent engineering firm hired as a consultant by an owner can be liable to the general contractor for professional negligence under Florida law. In this case, the City of North Miami Beach (“City”) hired a contractor to perform all design and construction services for a water slide project (“Contractor”). The City also hired a separate engineering firm to evaluate and perform inspections of the contractor’s work (“Engineer”). The engineering firm hired another engineering firm as a subconsultant to perform the engineering inspections (“Subconsultant”).
The Subconsultant issued a report to the Engineer that was provided to the City explaining that the water slide the Contractor designed and started to construct was structurally unsafe. The report recommended repairs to be implemented on the slide. The City rejected the Contractor’s work based on the Subconsultant’s recommendation and required the Contractor to implement the repairs before completing the work.
The Contractor, instead of suing the City, sued the Engineer and Subconsultant for professional negligence (also known as professional malpractice) to recover its costs in reconstructing the slide and implementing the repairs recommended to the City. Both the Engineer and Subconsultant moved to dismiss the Contractor’s complaint arguing that they did not owe a duty of care to the Contractor; therefore, they could not be liable in negligence to the Contractor under the law. The Southern District of Florida agreed with the Engineer and Subconsultant and dismissed the Contractor’s complaint with prejudice.
In order to be liable for professional negligence, a plaintiff must prove the following elements against the defendant-professional: 1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff; 2) the defendant breached its duty of care; and 3) the breach of the duty of care proximately caused damages to the plaintiff. See Recreational Design & Construction, 2011 WL at *2 citing Moransis v. Heathman, 744 So.2d 973, 975 n.3 (Fla. 1999). The element of duty, however, is a question of law in Florida and must be determined by the court before a negligence case proceeds to the jury or trier of fact. See Wallace v. Dean, 3 So.3d 1035, 1046 (Fla. 2009).
The Contractor relied on the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in A.R. Moyer, Inc. v. Graham, 285 So.2d 397 (Fla. 1973), in arguing that the Engineer and Subconsultant owed the Contractor a duty to perform its work and issue recommendations to the City with reasonable care and due diligence. In A.R. Moyer, the Florida Supreme Court held that a general contractor can maintain a cause of action against a supervising architect for the architect’s negligent performance of a contractual duty (even though the contractor has no contractual privity with the architect). Particularly, the Florida Supreme Court found that the following circumstances would present a professional negligence cause of action by the contractor against a supervising architect or engineer:
“(a) supervising architect or engineer is negligent in preparation of plans and specifications; (b) the supervising architect or engineer negligently causes delays in preparation of corrected plans and specifications; (c) the supervising architect or engineer negligently prepared and negligently supervised corrected plans and specifications; (d) the supervising architect or engineer negligently failed to award an architect’s certificate upon completion of the project; (e) the architect or engineer was negligent in exercise of supervision and control of contractor.” A.R. Moyer, 285 So.2d at 402.
Of importance, the “professional defendant [in A.R. Moyer] was an architect whose responsibilities on the relevant project were to prepare the designs and plans for the project, approve the overall structural components or framework for the project, and supervise the general contractor’s execution of those plans, including having the authority to halt the contractor’s work.” Recreational Design & Construction, 2011 WL at *4. In other words, A.R. Moyer dealt with more of a traditional architect or engineer that, among other things, served as the architect / engineer-of-record for the project and had detailed contract administration services that enabled them to make decisions that could effect the contractor, which is why the Court described the professional as a supervisory architect or engineer.
But, in Recreational Design & Construction, the Engineer and Subconsultant, were really nothing more than a consultant providing expert-related services issuing recommendations, advice, or suggestions to the City in which the City could accept or reject. The Engineer and Subconsultant did not serve as the engineer-of-record. They did not design the plans for the City’s project. They did not issue specifications for the project. They were not performing supervision to ensure that the Contractor’s construction complied with their design (since they were not the designer). And, they did not have authority to halt the construction of the project or issue corrective details directly to the Contractor. Instead, as previously mentioned, their services were truly within the realm of consulting services in which it was up to the City to determine how it wanted to utilize any suggestions, advice, or recommendations. For these reasons, and because the role of the Engineer and Subconsultant in this case was substantially different than the role of the architect in A.R. Moyer, the Southern District held they did not owe a duty of care to the Contractor. See also McElvy, Jennewein, Stefany, Howard, Inc. v. Arlington, Elec., Inc., 582 So.2d 47 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991) (finding that architect did not owe duty to subcontractor because architect was required to issue advice to owner regarding interpretation of architect’s design, but it was the owner responsible for making the ultimate decision based on the advice of the architect).
An architect or engineer that is serving as the architect / engineer-of-record for a construction project may want to implement certain language in their contract with the owner that while it will render certain advise, recommendations, or suggestions to the owner regarding its design and specifications and interpretations thereof, it is the owner that is required to render the ultimate decision regarding the advice, suggestions, and recommendations. This way, if the contractor does pursue a professional negligence claim against them, they can argue they were not a supervisory architect or engineer and should not be deemed to owe a duty to the contractor because it was the owner that made the ultimate decision that affected the contractor.
Also, owners on construction projects sometimes hire other consultants or experts to assist in the construction of their project. For instance, sometimes owners hire a building envelope consultant or a glazing consultant, etc. These consultants sometimes worry about the contractor asserting a negligence claim against them based on their advice, suggestions, and recommendations made to the owner. These consultants, however, should be able to rely on the arguments in Recreational Design & Construction to support they do not owe a duty to the contractor. These consultants can also employ the same contractual language suggestions above so that their contract specifically expresses that it is the owner that is required to act on the advice, suggestions, and recommendations of the consultant so that it remains understood that the owner, and not the consultant, has ultimate control over the contractor’s work.
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