Aside from their responsibility to act in a reasonably prudent manner toward employees, subcontractors, and contractors, architects and engineers also run the risk of being sued by a third party should their negligent work be the cause of a third party injury. Patrons of businesses, those injured, or those who suffer property damage in or near a building often resort to bringing suit against architects and engineers, blaming a design defect as the cause of the injury.
The architect or engineer will generally not be liable for an injury or property damage of a remote party, even if it was the result of a design defect, if the defect was patent and easily discoverable by the injured party. Such was the case in Inman v. Binghamton Housing Authority, 3 N.Y.2d 137, 164 N.Y.S.2d 699 (1957), where the father of a child injured on an apartment porch built six years prior brought suit on his behalf for negligent design against the architects who designed the structure. While the court in this case noted that the designer of defectively made real property could be held liable for injuries to remote users, the plaintiff’s complaint was fatally defective for failure to allege a latent defect or danger necessary to impose liability upon architects. Outside of such a defect, there was no privity of contract between the property owner and the architect. And since the lack of railing was a patent defect of the porch, the property owner was found to be fully aware of it and was unable to find any way to link liability for the injury to the architect who designed it.
Other cases forego the patent versus latent defect analysis, and look directly to whether the architect or engineer had a duty to the claimant and breached such duty by failing to exercise due care in his work. In Cubito v. Kreisberg, 69 A.D.2d 738, 419 N.Y.S.2d 578 (2d Dept. 1979), for example, the plaintiff was an apartment house tenant who was injured as the result of a fall in her laundry room, and brought suit against the architect to recover damages for personal injuries based on its alleged negligence. The complaint alleged that the architect provided negligent plans for the laundry room which resulted in it being designed so that water collected on the floor and cause plaintiff to fall and injure herself. The architect argued that since the date the plans were provided it had no involvement with the project, and additionally it was not involved at any point with the maintenance and repair of the laundry room or its facilities. The court did not apply the latent versus patent defect test but rather looked to whether the architect utilized due care in the completion of his plans. The rationale was that the injured third party had no professional relationship with the defendant and was suing on a negligence claim and not a breach of warranty claim. Therefore the court found that the cause of action for damages due to negligence was to accrue when the plaintiff’s injury occurred unless some compelling public policy were to find that the cause of action accrued when the architect prepared the plans. Consequently the court found that the architect’s due care in preparing the plans would be examined despite how far down the line plaintiff’s injury actually occurred since it owed a duty of care to her as a remote third party.