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State Supreme Court Voids Architects Immunity Against Design Liability

On July 3, 2014 the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that design professionals owe a duty of care to future homeowners of residential construction, even when the design professional does not actually build, or exercise control over the construction. Beacon Residential Community Assoc. v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Case No. S208173. The decision overrules a series of earlier cases which immunized design professionals from such liability because there was no contractual relationship with the homeowner. Previously, courts held that design professionals could not be held liable for defects in construction because without a contractual relationship, there was no duty of care. The Supreme Court noted that the design team in this case was paid over $5 million and played an active role throughout the construction. In addition, California’s “Right to Repair Act”, Civil Code §895, et seq. includes design professionals. Therefore, there was no reason to immunize the design team from liability.

The decision signals a further expansion of liability for those who provide labor and services in the construction field, regardless of what form the labor and services may take. The case was opposed by the American Institute of Architects and may have significant ramifications in the design professional arena. For contractors, the decision may be good news. By allowing the homeowner to pursue design professionals, it may level the playing-field for contractors and add an additional pocketbook for potential settlement. If a contractor can be held liable for defective construction, shouldn’t a design professional be held liable for defective design?