California Supreme Court Rules Against California’s Architects in the Beacon v. Skidmore Owings Case

February 09, 2015

PNN_1409The closely watched California Supreme Court case of Beacon Residential Community Association v. Skidmore Owings and Merrill et. al. has been decided, and the opinion is bad news for California Architects.  The Court held that architects owe a duty of care to future homeowners in the design of residential buildings where the architect is a principal architect on the project, meaning that the architect is not a subordinate to other design professionals.

Case background and procedural history

As a refresher, this case involved the design and construction of residential units in the Bay Area of California. Originally held as apartments, the units were converted by one of the developers into condominium units. After completion, the condominium association filed a lawsuit against the original developers, contractors, and designers alleging a long list of construction and design defects. Among the issues was a complaint that the individual units did not include air conditioning and that the quality of the windows used was so deficient that the individual units experienced excessive heat gain, making them unlivable.

Skidmore Owings and Merrill (“SOM”) and HKS, Inc. (“HKS”) were the architects for the project. In reliance on past case law in California, SOM and HKS filed a motion in the trial court arguing that they did not owe any duty of care to the condominium association because neither SOM nor HKS had contracted with that entity. The trial court granted that motion. The intermediate appellate court reversed that ruling, holding that under other California law, SOM  and HKS  in fact did owe a duty to subsequent owners who were foreseeable even though SOM or HKS did not contract with them. This created an arguable conflict between cases, and thus the California Supreme Court accepted the case for resolution.

Our firm was privileged to file an amicus brief on behalf of the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Architects, California Council, arguing that architects should not be held to owe a duty to downstream owners with whom the architect did not contract.

This issue, the scope of an architect’s duties and to whom those duties are owed, was the central issue before the Supreme Court. In addition to the amicus brief filed by our office, amicus briefs were filed by the California Building Industry Association, the Civil Justice Association, the Consumer Attorneys of California, and the Executive Council of Homeowners. The case was argued to the Supreme Court on May 7, 2014 and on July 3, 2014, the Court issued its opinion.

The court held that the architect did owe a duty of care to future homeowners based on common law interpretation of duty

The Court held that architects owe a duty of care to future homeowners in the design of residential buildings where the architect is a principal architect on the project, meaning that the architect is not a subordinate to other design professionals. The Court based its ruling on a common law (historical case precedent) understanding of the scope of a professional’s duty. In doing so, the Court traced through a history of cases where professionals were held to owe a duty to third parties with whom the Architect did not contract, where certain tests were met; these tests are known as the Biakanja factors, originating from the 1958 Supreme Court case of Biakanja v. Irving. Those factors are: the extent to which the transaction was intended to affect the plaintiff, the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, and the policy of preventing future harm. While there are procedural considerations specific to the Beacon case that informed the ultimate decision, the end result was a finding of duty.

This has been an excerpt of the September 2014 issue of ProNetwork News, titled California Supreme Court Rules Against California’s Architects in the Beacon v. Skidmore Owings Case. To continue reading, download the full PDF here.

About the Author:

Samuel Muir practices primarily in the area of construction litigation with an emphasis on the representation of design professionals. As lead trial counsel and appellate attorney for the design professional in the landmark decision of Markborough California, Inc. v. Superior Court (1991) 227 Cal.App.3d 705, Sam argued successfully to uphold the law authorizing limitation of liability clauses in construction contracts.

Sam earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration from Azusa Pacific University, and the Juris Doctor degree from Loyola Law School. He is a frequent speaker to architectural associations such as the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Pasadena/Foothill Chapter of AIA. Sam is past president of the Pasadena Bar Association, and is an affiliate member of the Pasadena/Foothill Chapter of the AIA, as well as a member of ACEC California.

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