In California they can. In a recent case, Beacon Residential Community Association v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, copy here design professional provided architectural and engineering services for a large residential condominium project. After the project was completed, the condominium association sued the design professionals asserting that the design caused water infiltration, structural cracks and solar heat gain. The condo owners went so far as to say the heat gain and lack of ventilation made the units uninhabitable.
The design professionals moved to dismiss, arguing that they did not have a contract with the condo owners and did not owe them a duty of care. The trial court granted the motion, but the California Court of Appeals reversed.
The appellate court found that the design professionals who provided plans and specifications on residential projects knew that their work would affect the property’s integrity, safety and habitability. The court found it significant that the state legislature had imposed licensure and registration requirements on architects and engineers, and required them to stamp the plans and specifications, both of which demonstrated an intent to protect the public from defective construction. This intent to protect the public created a duty on the design professionals for the benefit of the condominium owner.
It is important to note that this case may not be the final word on this issue, nor is it consistent with other court decisions. The design professionals have appealed to the California Supreme Court, which may reverse the court of appeals. Other courts, such as those in Ohio and Florida, have ruled that the individual condominium owners could not sue architects for negligence, primarily because the architect did not owe a duty to the condominium association or individual owner.
It will be interesting to see how the California Supreme Court addresses the novel rulings in this case. If the case is affirmed, it may create a substantial change in how architects contract and charge on residential projects. It will also be interesting to see whether this holding, again if affirmed, creeps into commercial projects.