How Much Control Is Too Much Control? Federal Court in Florida Holds Designers’ Supervision of Project and Issuance of Design Documents Creates Control Over—And Potential Tort Liability To—Project Contractors

Suffolk Constr. Co. v. Rodriguez & Quiroga Architects Chtd., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42652 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 15, 2018)

This case arises out of the design and construction of a science museum in Miami, Florida (the “Project”).  Museum of Science, Inc. (“MSI”), the Project owner, executed several agreements relating to the Project, including: (i) an agreement with Defendant Rodriguez and Quiroga Architects Chartered (“R&Q”) to serve as executive architect; (ii) an agreement with Defendant Grimshaw Architects P.C. (“Grimshaw”) to serve as the design architect; (iii) a construction services contract with Plaintiff Suffolk Construction Co. (“Suffolk”); and (iv) a direct contract with Suffolk’s subcontractor, Plaintiff Baker Concrete Construction, Inc. (“Baker”) for construction services after MSI terminated Suffolk for convenience.  After execution of these agreements, R&Q executed contracts with Defendant Fraga Engineers, LLC (“Fraga”) for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing design services, and with Defendant DDA Engineers, P.A. (“DDA”) for structural design and engineering services.

Suffolk and Baker (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) filed suit for negligence against R&Q, Grimshaw, Fraga, and DDA (collectively, “Defendants”), claiming that by issuing deficient design documents, Defendants breached their duties owed to Plaintiffs causing Plaintiffs to incur economic losses.  All Defendants but R&Q moved to dismiss the claims, arguing that they had no supervisory role or control over Plaintiffs, as demonstrated by the fact that their contracts with MSI did not designate them as “supervisory architects,” and thus, owed no duty to Plaintiffs.

Applying Florida law, the district court rejected this argument and held that Plaintiffs’ allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.  The Court noted that Florida law provides that a duty may arise if the defendant’s conduct creates a foreseeable zone of risk and the defendant creates or controls that risk.  Over forty years ago, in A.R. Moyer, Inc. v. Graham, 285 So. 2d 397 (Fla. 1973) the Florida Supreme Court applied this law to hold that an architect owed a duty to a contractor despite their lack of privity.  There, the Supreme Court noted that as a matter of policy, supervising architects simply have too much control over a contractor not to owe the contractor a legal duty. While later Florida courts have limited Moyer “strictly to its facts,” an architect may still be liable to a contractor in tort in the absence of privity where the architect exerts control over the contractor.  Such control may be established where the architect maintains a supervisory role on a project, or where the architect acts with knowledge that the contractor will rely on its designs or plans.

In light of this law, the district court held that Plaintiffs’ allegations—specifically, Defendants’ preparation and issuance of design materials on which they knew Plaintiffs would rely and Defendants’ obligations to observe and supervise Plaintiffs’ work—were sufficient to show that Defendants maintained control over Plaintiffs such that a legal duty could be imposed.  Accordingly, the district court denied Defendants’ motions to dismiss and permitted the parties to proceed to discovery.

To view the full text of the court’s decision, courtesy of Lexis®, click here.

John J. Gazzola

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