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Design Professionals May Owe A Duty Directly To Contractors For Defective Plans And Specifications

In Suffolk Construction Co., Inc v. Rodriquez Quiroga Architects, et al., 2018 WL 1335185 (U.S. Dist. Ct., S.D. Fla. Mar 15, 2018), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that an architect and engineer breached owed a duty to the contractor by providing design plans which the contractor relied upon.

Museum of Science, Inc. contracted with Rodriquez and Quiroga Architects (“R&Q”) as Executive Architect and with Grimshaw Architects (“Grimshaw”) as Design Architect for a science museum in Miami, Florida.  R&Q subcontracted with Fraga Engineers, LLC (“Fraga”) to provide engineering services with respect to the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and with DDA Engineers, P.A. (“DDA”) for structural engineering services.  The Museum contracted with Suffolk Construction, Inc. (“Suffolk”) as the general contractor.  After the Museum terminated the contract with Suffolk, Suffolk filed suit against R&Q, Grimshaw, Fraga and DDA for professional negligence.

Suffolk argued Defendants breached their duties owed to Suffolk by providing deficient architectural and engineering design plans.  Suffolk argued the flawed documents provided by the Defendants caused increased costs and delays.  Defendants denied they owed Suffolk a duty and filed Motions to Dismiss.

In Florida, legal duties arise from “the general facts of the case.”  According to the Court, the duty alleged in this action was one that “arises because of a foreseeable zone of risk arising from the acts of the defendants.” The Court held that “the foreseeable zone of risk created by the defendants’ conduct defines the scope of the defendants’ legal duty.”

The Court relied on A.R. Moyer, Inc. v. Graham, 285 So. 2d 39 (Fla. 1973), which held an architect owed a duty to a general contractor despite the lack of privity between them because architects simply have too much control over a contractor not to owe a legal duty.  The Florida Supreme Court held that an architect’s level of control over a contractor and the foreseeability of injury caused by reliance on the design established a professional duty.

The Suffolk Court recognized that cases following A.R. Moyer required, in the absence of privity, a professional architect or engineer to have some level of control over a contractor for a duty to arise.  The Suffolk Court explained that control may be established where the architect or engineer has a supervisory role, but also may be established where the architect or engineer acts with the knowledge that the contractor will rely on its design plans.  The Suffolk Court held the level of control exercised by Defendants, even the subcontracted sub-consultant defendants, warranted the finding of a duty, because they knew the general contractor would rely on their designs to construct the Project.

continues a long trend by the State of Florida away from not only the economic loss doctrine, but also any recognition that the design professional’s duty flows to the owner, not the general contractor.  After Suffolk, it is pretty clear that Florida will find a duty exists anytime a design professional provides plans and specifications that it is aware will be used for construction, even though the design professional at the time may not know who the general contractor is or when and if the Project will actually be built.