Massachusetts Court Holds Architect May Be Liable to Worker for Injuries Resulting From Defects in Contractor’s Work Where Architect Is Contractually Obligated to Inspect Work for Conformity With Plans and Specifications

Mellon v. Shriners Hospitals for Children
2007 Mass. Super. LEXIS 188 (Mass. Super. Ct. June 26, 2007)

The Superior Court of Massachusetts recently considered whether an architect of record on a construction project owed a duty to a third party construction worker on the project for injuries sustained as a result of improper installation of grates. To resolve this issue, the Court found that the whether a duty was owed rested on the language of the architectural services agreement at issue and the level of control the Architect exerted on the job site.

O’Dell Associates, Inc. (“Architect”) was the architect of record for the construction of a hospital in Boston (the “Project”). During the course of the Project, a worker was injured and sued various parties for personal injuries sustained by him. The gist of plaintiff’s claims was that the contractor, Barton-Malow Company, did not install certain grates to conform with the Architect’s plans and drawings thereby creating a tripping hazard. A question arose as to the Architect’s liability since it prepared the plans and drawings, was the owner’s representative on site, and had responsibility to conduct inspections of the work for conformance with the plans and specifications.

The Court began its analysis of the Architect’s duty by explaining that duty to a third party may arise from a contract with another. Quoting Banaghan v. Dewey, 340 Mass. 73, 80, 162 N.E. 2d 807 (1959), the Court opined that a defendant is liable to third parties “’who are forseeably exposed to danger and injured as a result of its negligent failure to carry out [the defendant’s contractual] obligation[s].’” Relying on the terms and conditions contained in the architectural service agreement, which turned over significant control of the Project to the Architect, and the actual work performed by the Architect, the Court held that there was sufficient evidence to survive a motion for summary judgment and that the question of whether the amount of control exercised by the Architect rose to the level of control imposing a duty owed to third parties was for a jury to decide.

The Court further distinguished the injuries at issue which resulted from a hazard created by the negligent inspection of work and the Architect’s failure to reject work which was not constructed in accordance with the Architect’s plans and drawings thereby creating a tripping hazard from injuries resulting from other circumstances. Specifically, the Court noted that the Architect would not be liable to third parties for injuries occurring due to lack of fall protection for which the Architect is not responsible and over which the Architect has no control. Because the Architect had design and inspection responsibilities, it could be held accountable for injuries resulting to third parties which injuries stemmed from defects and deficiencies in that work.

This decision suggests that architects and other project participants may be liable to third parties based upon the level of control the party is afforded by their contract with others and how much control the party exercises during the course of a project. Liability to third parties, however, will be limited to those injuries which stem from the defective or deficient work of the specific defendant, not of all defects and deficiencies on the work site. It also advises that multiple parties may have joint control of a project sufficient to find joint and several liability to plaintiff.

Click here to view full opinion as PDF (provided with the permission of LexisNexis).

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