The Architect’s and Engineer’s “Standard of Care” (Law note)

drawing architectural plans

Architects and engineers are required to meet the appropriate standard of care for their work on a construction project.   Such a simple phrase is actually a very loaded statement.  What, exactly, is the “standard of care” that the design professional is required to meet?  This is one of the “terms of art” that lawyers love and everyone else tends to hate.

Basically, the “standard of care” is a shorthand description that states the designer owes a duty to perform reasonably well on the project.  How is “reasonably well” defined?  It is not perfection.  It is, however, the showing of “reasonable care” and performing the “level of skill and diligence those in engaged in the same profession would ordinarily exercise under similar circumstances.”  Again, what?  If you are an architect practicing in, for example, Raleigh, you will be presumed to:

1.  possess the required degree of learning, skills, and experience that is ordinarily possessed by similarly situated professionals in the community (that is, perform as well as other architects practicing in the Raleigh area);

2. use reasonable and ordinary care and diligence in the exercise of your skill to accomplish your professional tasks; and

3. use your best good professional judgment in performing your professional tasks.

Notice that nowhere did I say that the architect’s plans had to be perfect.  However, the plans do need to meet a “typical” standard.  They must meet the applicable Codes.  They must generally be sound.  But they do not have to be perfect.  (Question: Is there ever a perfect set of plans?).

Courts in North Carolina have spent a lot of time, and a lot of ink, discussing the deceptively simple concept of “standard of care,” but essentially this is how it is defined.  If you want to read caselaw discussing the standard, a good case is RCDI Const. Inc. v. Spaceplan/Architecture, Planning, & Interiors, PA., 148 F. Supp. 2d 607 (W.D.N.C. 2001).

Note for Contractors & Subcontractors

If you are not a licensed professional, are you off the hook?  No.  But your duties fall under the “implied duty of workmanship“.  Essentially, you have a duty to make sure your work is sufficiently free from defects such that it meets the requirements of the Contract documents.

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Photo Drawing up the plans (Doors & Windows) by Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr and made available via an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

 

Add a comment »19 comments to this article

  1. May I just say what a comfort to uncover somebody who actually understands what
    they are talking about on the internet. You actually realize
    how to bring an issue to light and make it important.
    More and more people need to read this and understand this side of the story.
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    • Okay this is most likely a spam comment. But it is such well-written I just had to approve it! (If this is not spam, I apologize).

      Reply

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  8. I always incorporate what most call “the ordinary standard of care.” Meaning that degree of skill and care demonstrated by similarly situated professionals practicing in the same profession at the same time and locale.”

    If you go beyone that, for example, “the highest and best practices” or promising a specific result, you risk losing your professional liability coverage for any subsequent claim. However, I do not mind incorporating “. . . professionals of national reputation” or something similar.

    I do have a concern that if your engineering firm is touting its “exclusive” or “state of the art” or “cutting edge” knowledge that it could be creating its (self-inflicted) standard of care rather than the “ordinary” standard of care.

    Just found the site — really enjoy it.

    Reply

    • Butch:

      Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely spot on about creating insurance coverage issues if you promise an exceptional standard of care. This is becoming an issue especially in “green” design, where folks market their work as green or LEED, and may be holding themselves to standards above the normal standard of care. I don’t believe most insurance carriers have adequately addressed green projects and how to handle the insurance issues related to them– this will be a huge area of concern in the near future.

      Reply

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  10. Melissa: Ron Prichard directed me to your blog. It is excellent. I believe you will get a lot of insights about the “Standard of Care” from the book Ron provided. It’s chuck full of goodies.

    If you’d like an electronic copy of the book (.pdf) to send to folks you don’t like, let me know.

    A second edition of the book is in preparation and your comments will be valued input.

    Reply

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  12. Great post! What a terrific topic!

    Reply

  13. Melissa: You raise an important issue for architects, engineers, and other contractors. As you note, determining what is “reasonable” in a given situation is often quite difficult. One reason why making such decisions is so difficult is that the question only arises after something has gone badly wrong – making it easy to conclude that the architect, engineer, or other contractor must have done something “unreasonable.” Viewed from a different angle, no one ever tries to decide whether, say, an architect’s actions were reasonable when his/her plans are executed successfully. But of course things can go badly wrong even when the architect or engineer has done everything perfectly right, and that is when an experienced and knowledgeable North Carolina construction law attorney is needed.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the comment, George. Yes, hindsight analysis and Monday morning quarterbacking always yield different results. [And yes, of course, a consult with your construction law attorney is essential!!! :-) ]

      Reply

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