Design Professionals Owe a Duty of Care to Homeowners

Construction Law E-Alert (July 2014)

In Beacon, architectural and engineering firms provided sole design services for The Beacon residential condominium project, a 595 unit project located in San Francisco.  The condominiums were initially leased after construction, but were eventually sold to individual owners. The design firms claimed their role was limited to only providing design recommendations to the project's owner, who ultimately controlled and directed which design elements to construct.  Not long after completion of the project, the homeowners' association sued the design firms (among others) for construction defects and damages related to alleged water infiltration, inadequate fire separations, structural cracks, and other purported safety hazards. The claims included allegations under SB 800 (the "Right to Repair Act," Civil Code §895, et seq.) and common law negligence theories. The design firms demurred to the complaint, which the trial court sustained.  On appeal, however, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's ruling, concluding that the design firms owed a duty of care to third parties.  The Supreme Court affirmed. Historically, liability for deficient goods and services hinges on whether there is a contractual relationship between a buyer and seller.  However, the Supreme Court recognized that in certain circumstances a contractual relationship is not required.  In its ruling, the Supreme Court relied on fifty year old precedent, Biankanja v. Irving (1958) 49 Cal.2d 647.   In Biankanja, the California Supreme Court outlined several factors to determine whether a duty of care is owed to non-contracting third parties. Although Biankanja analyzes many factors, emphasis was placed on whether a purported harm is foreseeable by a defendant's conduct and how close of a connection there is between that conduct and an injury. Here, the Court recognized that even though the design firms did not actually build the project, they did conduct weekly inspections, monitored contractor compliance, altered design elements when issues arose, and advised the owners of any nonconforming work. In applying the Biankanja factors to these circumstances, the Supreme Court determined the homeowners were intended beneficiaries of the design work and the design firms' primary role in the project bore a close connection to the alleged injuries.  As a result, the Supreme Court held that the allegations in the complaint were sufficient and, if proven, establishes the defendants owed a duty of care to the homeowners' association. Interestingly, the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue of whether SB 800 was intended to exclusively capture design defects in its scope, even though the Court indicated it may. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court's ruling is significant.  The case will affect how design professionals allocate risk on future residential projects, perhaps by raising design prices or insuring around the liability exposure. The likely outcome, however, is that design professionals are now targets in construction defect lawsuits. Stephen A. Sunseri and Aarti S. Kewalramani represent real estate developers, contractors, and subcontractors in construction defect litigation.  For more information, please contact them directly at: 760.431.9501.