Requirements for Establishing a Design Professional’s Liability

By Lauren M. Ippolito

In a recent decision by the New York Supreme Court in June 2014, the Court affirmed that expert testimony is a necessity in a case where is it alleged that a design professional failed to adequately perform its services or improperly performed its work pursuant to a contract.  In that case, the defendant architect had been retained pursuant to a written contract to provide landscape design services on the plaintiff’s property in connection with the plaintiff’s construction of a new residential home. The plaintiff’s complaint, which alleged causes of action against the defendant for negligence and breach of contract, among others, was dismissed by the Court on defendant’s motion for summary.

The significance of the ruling by the New York Supreme Court is noteworthy.  An expert is of extreme importance in establishing a case of negligence or breach of contract against a design professional.  Without such expert testimony or an affidavit setting forth how the design professional allegedly deviated from the accepted standards of care in the industry, courts have routinely held that a plaintiff’s case cannot survive summary judgment. The defendant was granted a dismissal from the case because of the plaintiff’s failure to submit an expert affirmation setting forth how the defendant “departed from the good and accepted practice of a landscape architect or designer.” Without expert testimony detailing how the defendant deviated from the proper standard of care of the industry, plaintiff failed to establish a triable issue of fact.

In its decision, the Court also ruled that the plaintiff could not bring its claims of both breach of contract and negligence against defendant unless the plaintiff established that there existed a legal duty independent of the contract itself and that the defendant breached that duty. The Court considered the claims duplicative actions that could not co-exist because the plaintiff was unable to demonstrate that any special relationship or legal duty was violated by the defendant, aside from the contractual relationship, and thus dismissed all claims against the defendant.

Read more about this New York Supreme Court decision.