New York: Appellate—Summary Judgment Affirmed for Defendant Architect

06/22/18

The First Department Appellate Division recently affirmed a lower court decision awarding summary judgment and dismissal of all claims in favor of Rawle & Henderson LLP’s client, the defendant architect, in a case venued in Bronx County Supreme Court.

Rawle & Henderson LLP represented the defendant architect.

Plaintiff claimed that, while working as a cook in the kitchen of a restaurant, he was injured due to the collapse of a drop ceiling. Plaintiff claimed that the ceiling did not contain lightweight fireproof tiles as required but instead contained heavier pieces of sheetrock. Plaintiff also testified that the drop ceiling was not properly secured to the main ceiling and that after the accident, the general contractor performed repair work to the ceiling.

As a result of the accident, plaintiff alleged, among other injuries, herniated discs and radiculopathy in his cervical spine requiring a cervical spinal fusion surgery, herniated discs and radiculopathy in his lumbar spine requiring a lumbar spinal fusion surgery, and a torn right rotator cuff requiring arthroscopic right shoulder surgery.

Plaintiff brought an action against the owner of the premises, the architect, a plumbing contractor, and a general contractor involved in renovation work at the premises.

By agreement, the tenant of the premises entered into a contract with the architect for consultation services for the interior renovation of approximately 500 square feet of commercial space for a new restaurant. The contract with the architect was limited to the preparation of drawings for the renovation work and did not include structural design. The contract did not require the architect to return to the site during the construction or post construction phases of renovation. Further, the architect was not required to return to the site in order to confirm that the renovation work was performed pursuant to the drawings. The subject ceiling suspension system in the kitchen area consisted of a two by four acoustic ceiling tile and suspension system that was drawn pursuant to the New York City Code. The suspended system was to be attached to the underside of the existing structure by an expansion bolt.

The tenant also retained a general contractor to perform the construction work during the renovation, which included providing and installing a drop ceiling system throughout the kitchen area.

We filed a motion on behalf of the defendant architect to dismiss the complaint and cross-claims on the grounds that the architect’s plans were in compliance with good and accepted architectural standards, and that the architect was not negligent and did not otherwise cause or create the alleged defective condition or launch an instrument of harm. In granting our motion, the lower court found that plaintiff did not allege a significant structural or design defect that is contrary to a specific code provision. Furthermore, the Court found that plaintiff’s expert architect failed to cite any code provisions violated by the defendant architect.

In order to prove negligence or malpractice in the design of a structure, the plaintiff was required to put forth testimony that the architect deviated from the accepted industry standards and that such deviation was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. See Columbus v. Smith & Mahoney P.C., 259 A.D.2d 857, 686 N.Y.S.2d  535 (3rd Dept. 1999). The lower court determined that plaintiff’s expert’s conclusions were equivocal and were insufficient to establish that the defendant architect was negligent and/or that the defendant’s design plans caused or contributed to the collapse of the ceiling.

Plaintiff appealed the decision.

On appeal, we successfully argued that plaintiff could not bring a claim against the architect since (1) defendant did not launch an instrument of harm, (2) plaintiff did not detrimentally rely upon the architectural contract, and (3) the defendant architect did not entirely displace the property owner’s duty to maintain the premises. Directly on point with the facts of the instant action, in Espinal v. Melville Snow Contrs., 98 N.Y.2d 136, 138 (2002), the Court of Appeals held that “a contractual obligation, standing alone, will generally not give rise to tort liability in favor of a third party.”  As a general rule, a contractor does not owe a duty of care in tort to non-contracting third-parties like plaintiff unless these parties can establish that at least one of the following three exceptions to the general rule (precluding tort liability against third-party contractors) applies to the factual circumstances surrounding the accident: (1) the contractor “launched a force or instrument of harm,” thereby creating or exacerbating a hazardous condition; (2) the party detrimentally relied on the continued performance of the contractor’s duties; or (3) the contractor entirely displaced the landowner’s duty to maintain the premises safely. See Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d at 140; see also Fung v. Japan Airlines Co., Ltd., 9 N.Y.3d 351, 360-361 (2007); Church v. Callanan Indus., 99 N.Y.2d 104, 111 (2002).

Plaintiff had argued that the defendant architect had launched a force of harm by negligently designing the plans that the general contractor used to construct the drop ceiling. However, the appellate division found that pursuant to its contract with the restaurant owner, the defendant architect had no obligations in connection with providing and installing the drop ceiling, for which the general contractor was responsible. 87 Chambers, LLC v. 77 Reade, LLC, 122 A.D.3d 540 (1st Dept. 2014). The appellate division also found that plaintiff did not raise an issue of fact through his expert affidavit, since the record showed that the defendant architect had no control over the drop ceiling that would be installed. Davies v. Ferentini, 79 A.D.3d 528 (1st Dept. 2010).