An Architect Owes Duty of Professional Care to Future Owners of a New Residential Building

A homeowners association on behalf of its members sued a condominium developer and various other parties over construction design defects that allegedly make the homes unsafe and uninhabitable for significant portions of the year. Two of the defendants were architectural firms, which allegedly designed the homes in a negligent manner and also played an active role throughout the construction process, coordinating efforts of the design and construction teams, conducting weekly site visits and inspections, recommending design revisions as needed, and monitoring compliance with design plans. The final decisions regarding how the homes would be built were made by the developer of the project rather than defendant architectural firms.

The trial court held that the homeowners association could not state a claim against the defendant architectural firms, reasoning that an architect who makes recommendations but not final decisions on construction owes no duty of care to future homeowners with whom it has no contractual relationship. The Court of Appeal, however, reversed the trial court, concluding that an architect owes a duty of care to homeowners in these circumstances, both under the common law and under the Right to Repair Act (Civ. Code, § 895 et seq.).

The California Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision and held that an architect owes a duty of care to future homeowners in the design of a residential building where the architect is a principal architect on the project — that is, the architect, in providing professional design services, is not subordinate to other design professionals. The duty of care extends to such architects even when they do not actually build the project or exercise ultimate control over construction.

Implications of the Court’s Decision

Frankly, we are not clear why the California Supreme Court accepted review of the Court of Appeal’s decision. In our view it has long been the law in California that a design professional owes a duty, and can be liable, to current and future purchasers of residential and commercial property where the design professional had significant involvement in the design and/or construction oversight of a construction project. We note that the California Supreme Court emphasized that the design professional must be a principal participant in the project rather than a mere sub-consultant to other design professionals, contractors or material suppliers involved in the project (distinguishing an earlier case, Weseloh Family Ltd. Partnership v. K.L. Wessel Construction Co., Inc. (2004) 125 Cal.App.4th 152). Consequently, in our view the battle-lines will now shift for design professional involved in construction defect cases to arguing that they did not function in a principal capacity on the project, but rather were so minor and so subordinate to the role or judgment of other design professionals as to foreclose the their liability in negligence to third parties.

The case is Beacon Residential Community Association v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP et. al., California Supreme Court, Filed July 3, 2014, No. S208173.

If you have any questions regarding the impact of this decision on construction defect litigation, please contact Ralph R Rhoades rrhoades@partonsell.com, who has 30+ years of experience defending these claims.

A homeowners association on behalf of its members sued a condominium developer and various other parties over construction design defects that allegedly make the homes unsafe and uninhabitable for significant portions of the year. Two of the defendants were architectural firms, which allegedly designed the homes in a negligent manner and also played an active […]