Recent California Supreme Court Ruling Changes Game for Architects

What started out as a discrepancy over glass has turned into a much larger conversation about where architects’ liability ends.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that, at least in one case, architects in the state owe a “duty of care” to future owners beyond the initial builder with whom the architect did business, opening up a vast array of potential lawsuits in the future.

Six years ago, the Beacon Residential Community Association in San Francisco filed a lawsuit against Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and HKS architects, alleging the glazing specified for a 595-unit condominium it bought from a developer made the homes “unsafe and uninhabitable” at times, according to court documents.

The developer opted for lower-performance glass than the low-E glass SOM claims it recommended, causing the downstream issues after the developer sold the property to Beacon. The glazing issue was the “principal defect” in Beacon’s original complaint, though there were others, including “extensive water infiltration, inadequate fire separations, structural cracks, and other safety hazards.”

The Court initially ruled in favor of the architects, concluding 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 ruling continued, “Even if the architect initiated the substitutions, changes, and other elements of design that Plaintiff alleges to be the cause of serious defects, so long as the final decision rested with the owner, there is no duty owed by the architect to the future condominium owners, in the Court’s view.”

However, the Court of Appeal later reversed the ruling, citing multiple past cases in which the Court ruled a party did in fact owe a duty of care to a third party. As part of its argument, the Appeal ruling stated that “[b]ecause of defendants’ unique and well-compensated role in the Project as well as their awareness that future homeowners would rely on their specialized expertise in designing safe and habitable homes, significant moral blame attaches to defendants’ conduct.”

The appeal prompted multiple building and industry associations to get involved via amicus briefs, including the American Institute of Architects California Chapter (AIACC). The AIACC submitted its brief last October.

“Under the facts here and as posited by the issue as framed, Plaintiffs have no direct relationship with the architects who designed the building in which they live,” argued the AIACC. “Architects are professionals, not manufacturers. They provide a service, not a product. As professionals they owe a duty of loyalty to the party who engages their services.

“Permitting negligence claims by third parties well down the line could significantly and negatively impact the efficiencies and risk allocations built into the contracts between the professionals and their clients and, more importantly, place that design professional in the impossible stance of being forced to choose between two masters: the party who has engaged his services, or the myriad unknown future parties who may ultimately be dissatisfied, long after the contracting party as signed off on and accepted the work.”

The AIACC proceeded to get a little more creative with its stance.

“Should such a duty be imposed, the potential impact is limitless,” the amicus brief reads. “In 2011 the United Nations declared Internet Access to be a human right. Must architects design buildings—even buildings mean to provide low-cost housing—which are wired for the Internet? Are they subject to liability from residential end-users if they do not?”

The argument from the architects’ side, however, apparently wasn’t compelling enough, as the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal last month.

The AIACC, SOM and HKS hadn’t returned USGNN.com™’s requests for comment as of press time.

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