My last blog post highlighted a recent California court decision in which homeowners had sued architectural firms over allegedly bad window design and materials. The question presented to the California Supreme Court was essentially whether an architectural firm who makes recommendations but not final decisions on construction owes a duty of care to future homeowners with whom it has no contractual relationship. The Court concluded: yes, it may.
As I trolled the sites reporting on the decision, the reaction of design professionals generally read like the SNL skit REALLY!?! If the architect had no control over the final decisions on construction why should they be responsible for those decisions? Really!?! I empathize. In what universe is it fair to hold the architect responsible for problems caused by changes made during final construction over which they had no control? It is not. But whoever said our legal system was fair?
However, the Beacon decision did not state the architect was responsible. Merely that it may be. All you need to know about design professional liability is this: Control = Responsibility. Juries and the Court just want to figure out who had control and could have prevented the defect. They will bear responsibility. This is where an understanding of the Spearin doctrine and a companion principle expressed Balcom Industries, Inc. v. Nelson come in handy.
The Spearin doctrine comes from an ancient case involving the design and construction of a government shipyard but the principle articulated is alive and well today: subcontractors (including designers) will not be held responsible for consequences of defects in plans or specifications provided by the owner. The converse is also true – and Balcom steps in. It is essential that construction was accomplished in conformance with the plans and specifications provided by the designer for liability to attach to the designer. It seems more fair that responsibility arises only when there is at least a modicum of control.
Admittedly, perceived control versus actual control is a morass best left for another time. Also, contract provisions or differing delivery methods can turn these principles on their head. So proceed with caution- and preserve your job file!