December 1st, 2023
architects and engineers
GEORGIA COURT OF APPEAL HOLDS PROOF OF CONSTRUCTION AT VARIANCE WITH ENGINEER DRAWINGS IS NOT PROOF OF A DESIGN DEVIATION

The Court of Appeals of Georgia, in Blevins v. PECGA, LLC, 890 S.E. 2d 109 (Ga. Ct. App. 2023), recently reversed summary judgment in favor the design engineer in a lawsuit for defective construction of a home because the homeowners raised a sufficient dispute of fact regarding whether mistakes in the engineer’s plans caused defects in their home.

Plaintiffs Anthony D. Blevins and Cathy L. Procaskey (“Plaintiffs”) sued PECGA, LLC d/b/a Palmer Engineering Company (“PECGA”) for professional negligence in the design of Plaintiffs’ home.  Plaintiffs alleged PECGA’s plans failed to specify the difference in structural framing height between the house itself and a detached garage, leading the first general contractor on the project to build the structural wood framing below-grade.  That condition violated the governing building codes, a defect that, if left unremedied, would preclude Plaintiffs from obtaining a certificate of occupancy.

PECGA moved for summary judgment on the ground that its drawings required construction of the structural framing above-grade, but the general contractor deviated from the drawings by constructing the structural framing below-grade, and thus it could not be held liable for professional negligence.  Plaintiffs argued there was a genuine dispute of material fact for two reasons.  First, PECGA’s own engineer acknowledged the general contractor constructed the home according to the plans.  Second, one of Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses testified PECGA failed to coordinate the house’s structural framing and foundation design with that of the detached garage, producing drawings that, if followed, placed the house’s structural framing below-grade. The trial court granted PECGA summary judgment, holding the general contractor constructed the structural framing below-grade, whereas the drawings showed the structural framing above-grade.

The Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment, finding PECGA’s drawings were only one piece of evidence in its favor, whereas Plaintiffs’ expert’s opinion that PECGA failed to coordinate the detached garage and house design created a fact question as to whether PECGA’s plans were actually followed.  The Court also refused to consider substantial additional evidence PECGA attempted to introduce on appeal, evaluating the summary judgment based only on the evidence presented to the trial court.

The lessons of this decision are twofold.  First, counsel for engineers and other design professionals are reminded to ensure that all relevant evidence in support of their clients is presented to the trial court to create the strongest case on appeal.  The failure to do so at summary judgment cannot be remedied on appeal.  Second, the decision is a reminder that proof of defective construction is not proof of deviation from the plans. Design professionals should not assume they will prevail merely because the building as constructed does not match the drawings, but, rather, must prove their drawings, if followed, do not lead to the defective result.

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