What tort obligations does a design professional on a construction project owe to non-parties — like, for example, the persons who will use what has been designed after it is built? Tort law involves the idea of a duty of care that the design professional owes to others arising out of the designer’s professional expertise and certification. Matters involving a design professional’s tort obligations typically raise the following issues:
- The nature and extent of the professional’s duty of care to others
- What kinds of damages can be recovered if this duty of care is breached
- What is necessary to prove that a third party has been damaged by the breach
Contracts and Establishing the Standard of Care
In one Illinois case, a court addressed whether an engineer who had contracted to design a “replacement” for a bridge deck had a professional obligation to “improve” the bridge deck after it failed and third-party motorists were killed. In other words, did the design professional have an independent obligation to go beyond replacing the bridge deck, as the contract stipulated? The Supreme Court of Illinois said no, granting summary judgment as a matter of law in favor of the engineer as to the deceased motorists’ claims.
In this case, there was a contract that prescribed the duty of care that the design professional agreed to meet: “the degree of skill and diligence normally employed by professional engineers or consultants performing the same or similar services.” These contract obligations trumped the standard of care that would exist absent a contract: “the use of the same degree of knowledge, skill and ability as an ordinarily careful professional would exercise under similar circumstances.” While these standards look similar, they differ because one recognizes the limitations that the parties agreed to in their contract limit the engineer’s duty to others. Because the contract specifically required replacement — and not redesign — of the bridge deck, the engineer could not be held liable for failing to go beyond the contractual scope of duty.
The engineer could have been found liable to third parties if he had been negligent in performing services relating to the replacement of the bridge deck — that was in the scope of what the engineer had agreed to do. Moreover, the engineer could have assumed additional liability by voluntarily attempting to improve the bridge deck and delivering a poor or defective product.
Contracts and the Economic Loss Doctrine
A design professional’s obligations to third parties are further limited by the “economic loss doctrine,” which applies to claims that do not involve physical harm. This doctrine prevents a party from pursuing a claim for economic or commercial losses arising from an alleged breach of a duty of care if the design professional’s contract precludes recovery of consequential or tort-based damages. Put simply, the contract’s limitation of damages can preempt economic loss liability even in cases where a professional failed to meet the duty of care.
Another question that arises if a duty of care is present and a third party has suffered damages is whether the breach of the duty has “proximately caused” these damages. Here, many courts — including the Illinois court — look at what the professional has contractually agreed to do. If injury results from something reasonably within that contractually defined responsibility, a design professional can be seen to proximately cause damages that flow from the designer’s failure to competently perform those duties.
In Conclusion: Know (and Perform) Your Contractual Duties
In summary, a design professional’s contract serves to confine and to define the designer’s obligations — not just to the design professional’s client, but also to third parties with whom the designer does not have a contractual relationship. As long as the design professional sticks to what the designer has contracted to do and does that work professionally, the designer cannot be obligated to go beyond those duties.
For a more detailed analysis of duty of care and tort law obligations in construction projects, see Bruner & O’Connor On Construction Law § 17:13.50.