What is a Design Professional’s Tort Duty?

A design professional’s duties and responsibilities on a construction project generally are outlined in its contract with the owner. Does a design professional’s duty extend to third parties? The Supreme Court recently addressed this issue and held that the design professional’s duty to third parties is limited to the terms of the contract documents.

In Bonilla, a construction worker was injured while performing demolition work on a construction project. The worker, who was a subcontractor on the project, filed suit against the architect and the engineer on the project alleging that these design professionals failed to monitor and supervise the execution of the plans to ensure safety on the job site.

The engineer and the architect filed summary judgment motions arguing that they owed no duty to oversee, supervise, or maintain the construction site. The trial court granted their motions. However, the appellate court found the contract between the architect and the owner may have inferred a duty was owed to the worker.

The appellate court referenced contract provisions that required the architect to make weekly site visits and to report to the owner any deviations from the plans. The court noted that the architect was on site the day of the accident and photographed potential unsafe conditions, which would have deviated from the plans. The appeal court reversed the trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment.

The architect filed a writ with the Louisiana Supreme Court, which reversed the appellate court’s ruling and reinstated summary judgment in favor of the design professionals. The Supreme Court emphasized “the duty owed to an employee of a contractor by an engineer or architect is determined by the express provisions of the contract between the parties.”

While the contract documents required the architect to make weekly visits to the jobsite, the purpose of this duty was to ensure that the owner received the building it paid for and that the progress and quality of the work met the plans. More importantly, the contract also provided that these site visits did not create a duty to supervise construction. In contrast, under the terms of the contract, the contractor had control over construction means and methods and responsibility for site safety, specifically including site safety for all employees.

The clear and unambiguous language of the contract dictated that the design professions owed the worker no duty. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the architect could not be held liable for failing to perform a duty that it had no responsibility to undertake.


Bonilla v. Verges Rome Architects, 2023-00928 (La. 3/22/24), 382 So. 3d 62.


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