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Florida Appellate Court Holds Architect’s Supervision Was Sufficient To Give Rise To Duty Owed To Contractor

In Grace and Naeem Uddin, Inc. v. Singer Architects, Inc., 278 So. 3d 89 (Fla. 4th DCA 2019), Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals held an architect had sufficient supervisory control over a contractor to establish a duty of care.  Broward County (the “County”) hired Grace and Naeem Uddin, Inc. (“GNU”), a general contractor, for an improvement project at the Fort Lauderdale Airport (the “Project”). The County hired Singer Architects, Inc. (“Singer”) to provide consulting and administrative services for the Project.

Pursuant to the contract with the County, Singer was required to (1) interpret and give recommendations on disputes arising between the County and GNU; (2) recommend rejections of work not in conformity with the contract; (3) review and act on the GNU’s shop drawings, product data and samples; (4) coordinate with the County to review change orders for code compliance; (5) conduct site observations, make recommendations, and assist the County in determining the Project’s completion; and (6) manage the finalization of the Project by preparing a punch list of incomplete work or work needing correction and confirm GNU’s successful demonstration of the project. The contract also stated that the parties did not intend to create any rights or obligations in any third person or entity under the contract agreement.

As the Project neared completion, the County terminated its contract with GNU based on Singer’s recommendations. GNU filed suit against the County for breach of contract and Singer for professional negligence. Singer filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing it did not owe GNU a duty of care. The trial court granted the Motion, concluding Singer did not owe GNU a duty of care in its role as the County’s consultant.

GNU argued the trial court erred because A.R. Moyer v. Graham, 285 So. 2d 397 (Fla. 1973) recognized a professional negligence claim against an architect who supervises a project resulting in economic damages to the contractor. Florida courts have required the existence of supervisory duties or responsibilities and a close nexus between the architect and contractor for Moyer to apply.  GNU argued the Moyer court noted, “The power of the architect to stop the work alone is tantamount to a power of economic life or death over the contractor.”  

On appeal, the Fourth District reversed the trial court’s summary judgment, holding Singer exercised sufficient supervision over the Project to create a duty of care because (1) although Singer did not have the authority to stop work, it had the authority to recommend a work stoppage; (2) Singer was responsible for certifying payments to the contractor; (3) the County relied on Singer to oversee GNU’s work; and (4) the County relied on Singer to make its decision to terminate GNU. The Court found a close nexus between Singer and GNU existed.

This is a terrible case for design professionals.  The Fourth DCA takes common architect duties that are standard in every AIA contract to form the basis of a duty owed not to the owner, but the general contractor.  Hopefully, this case will make it to the Florida Supreme Court and a more design professional friendly result will occur.  If you are a design professional in Florida, you should keep an eye on this case as it hopefully proceeds to the Florida Supreme Court.