The California Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Beacon Residential Community Association v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, S208173, on July 3, upholding a homeowners association’s right to pursue a common law negligence claim against the project architects of a 595-unit condominium project in San Francisco.
Building on substantial case law and the common law principles on which it is based, we hold that an architect owes a duty of care to future homeowners in the design of a residential building where, as here, the architect is a principal architect on the project — that is, the architect, in providing professional design services, is not subordinate to other design professionals. The duty of care extends to such architects even when they do not actually build the project or exercise ultimate control over construction.
Finding a common law basis for the imposition of duty, the Supreme Court did not reach the plaintiff’s argument and the Court of Appeal’s ruling that the California Right to Repair Act (Civil Code §896 et seq.) was “dispositive of the scope of duty.”
Bottom line, the case holds that the principal architect(s) on a residential project face negligence exposure for design issues to foreseeable future homeowners. Although the holding is limited to principal architects, the reasoning would seem to apply to the architect’s principal consultants (mechanical, structural, etc.) as well. The court went to great lengths to distinguish its reasoning in this case as protecting unsophisticated homeowners purchasing residential properties, from one of its prior rulings which found that auditors owed no duty to their client’s investors (Bily v. Arthur Young & Co. (1992) 3 Cal.4th 370). Thus, it is probable that the Beacon ruling would not be extended to “commercial” plaintiffs. Click here for the full text of the opinion.
Robert C. Hendrickson is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he practices in the areas of construction law, business litigation and alternative dispute resolution. You can read his professional biography here.