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Florida Court Of Appeals Determines Design Professional Must Hold License To Be Sued For Professional Negligence

In Sunset Beach Investments, LLC v. Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., 207 So. 3d 1012 (Fla. Ct. App. 2017), the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida held an engineering intern could not be liable for professional negligence.  The Court explained an “engineer intern” could not be considered a professional because he does not maintain a license.

Sunset Beach Investments, LLC (“Sunset Beach”) hired Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc. (“Kimley-Horn”) to prepare site plans for the development of a beachfront parcel on Hutchinson Island.  Michael Kiefer was the “project manager” and worked alongside two licensed engineers as a team coordinator.  Kiefer was not a licensed engineer, but had passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and was certified by the State of Florida as an “engineer intern.”  As an “engineer intern,” Kiefer was required to work under a licensed engineer’s supervision and was not allowed to practice engineering.

Sunset Beach filed a complaint against Kimley-Horn due to delays and other issues with the project.  Sunset Beach later amended its complaint to add Kiefer and the two licensed engineers as additional defendants.  Kiefer moved for summary judgment, arguing he was immune from suit for professional negligence because he was not a licensed professional and was merely an employee of Kimley-Horn.  The Circuit Court agreed with Kiefer, holding Kiefer could not be sued for professional negligence because he did not hold a professional license and did not sign or seal any plans or use any professional designation in connection with the Sunset Beach project.  Sunset Beach appealed the circuit court’s judgment.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s judgment, clarifying the definition of “professional” for the purpose of a professional negligence claim to not include an “engineer intern.”  The Florida legislature classifies an “engineer intern” differently from a licensed engineer.  The Court of Appeals rejected Sunset Beach’s test to determine which vocations could be considered “professional,” which would require the courts to decide what qualifies as “special education,” “training,” “experience,” and related issues.  The Court of Appeals found Sunset Beach’s test would require too much imprecision and variation in determining whether one vocation is considered “professional” or not.  Instead, the Court of Appeals stated, “At a minimum, in a profession where a license exists, the existence of a license is a valid barometer for determining whether a person is classified as a professional.”  The Court of Appeals also explained the Legislature did not include an “engineer intern” in the definition of “engineer” and does not classify an unlicensed engineer intern as a professional.  Therefore, because Kiefer was only an “engineer intern” and did not satisfy the requirements to become a licensed engineer, Kiefer was not a professional and could not be subject to liability for professional negligence.

This case clarifies the courts in Florida look at the existence of a license as a valid barometer to determine whether one can be classified as a professional.  This holding should avoid too much imprecision and variation when determining whether one can be considered a “professional” for purposes of professional liability.