The standard of care: Should I care?
Often the actions of the architect are measured against the applicable “standard of care.” What does that mean?
When an architect is alleged to have committed professional negligence, the actions of the architect are measured against the applicable standard of care. Much has been written and published about the standard of care for architects. One can enter the library of curiosity, also known as the internet, and spend hours weaving in and out of intellectual discussions and court cases about this topic; let’s attempt to simplify the issue with a few questions, then answers.
How did we come by having a standard of care?
It’s best to begin with the expectation of exercising common sense and ordinary care in human behavior. For example, as we drive our vehicles we use caution when changing lanes or proceeding through an intersection, so as to look for other vehicles and avoid collisions. We consciously exercise care because we do not want to cause an injury. The expectation for the driver is that she will use the same care that other drivers in the same or similar situation or circumstances would use.
Through the collective application of this level of care, members of society endeavor to keep the streets safe from accidents. We can think of this simple example as the standard of care for a driver of a motor vehicle. Society has developed an expectation that, over time, became a standard that we often hear referred to as the “common law.” Common law concepts from early court cases, repeated over time, have become adopted as standards of behavior, and for the practice of architecture, as well as other professions, a standard of care.
Must my behavior be perfect?
One of the earliest cases in the United States that defined the architect’s standard of care is the case of Beede vs. Coombs, decided in Maine in 1896. In that case, an architect, Coombs, designed a house and barn for his clients, the Beedes. The Beedes had a budget of $2,500 for the house, which was built for a cost of $2,700. Mrs. Beede wanted more in her new home than the budget could afford, and Coombs was trying to accommodate her with the design.
Litigation followed, and the judge determined that even if Coombs had promised to design a house that could be built for $2,500, all that could reasonably be expected of an architect was to use his skill and ability to endeavor to bring about that result. The court held that the undertaking of an architect implies that he possesses skill and ability sufficient to enable him to perform the required services; and that he will exercise and apply that skill and ability, reasonably and without neglect, but he does not imply or warrant a satisfactory result.
The court added that “an error in judgment is not necessarily evidence of a want of skill or care, for mistakes and miscalculations are incident to all of the business of life.” In other words, perfection is not the standard of care for the practice of architecture. This is the common law standard of care for architects, which is usually described as, that level of skill and care employed by architects, practicing in the same or similar circumstances and geographical area.
Will I always be judged by the common law standard?
While the common law standard of care for architects is well established, architects should also be aware that they can agree, by contract, to perform to a higher standard of care. In 1978, the Texas Supreme Court held that in contracting for his services, an architect “implies that he possesses skill and ability, will exercise and apply his skill and ability reasonably and without neglect”, quoting the Beede case, and “his duty depends on the particular agreement entered into with his employer.”
It is possible to commit to a higher level of service than the common law standard of care. For example, one may see language in a contract by which an architect will agree to exercise the “highest” level of care, or deliver drawings and specifications “with no material errors.” Extreme care should be taken when confronted with elevations of the standard of care. Professional liability insurance policies are underwritten with the presumption that the insured architect’s services will be judged based upon the common law standard. Agreeing by contract to a higher standard may result in the architect’s insurance carrier denying coverage.
To address this concern, the American Institute of Architects states in its form contracts the common law standard, as follows:
The Architect shall perform its services consistent with the professional skill and care ordinarily provided by architects practicing in the same or similar locality under the same or similar circumstances. The Architect shall perform its services as expeditiously as is consistent with such professional skill and care and the orderly progress of the Project.
But what does it mean to say an architect will exercise the common law standard of care? If an architect makes a mistake, and a client incurs additional costs due to the mistake, how does the standard of care apply to an analysis of the facts to determine whether or not the architect should have legal liability for, and pay, the additional costs? In other words, if perfection is not the standard of care, what amount of imperfection falls within the standard? Or, if one can make a mistake and not be negligent, at what point does a mistake rise to the level of negligence?
In the next article in this series from AIA's Risk Management Program, we will discuss how the concept of the standard of care is applied in a claim against an architect.
AIA has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice.