Legal Updates for Construction Litigation
Debunking Professional Negligence Liability of an Engineer in Training
A recent case out of Florida sheds new light on the potential liability for Engineers in Training ("EITs"). In the case of Sunset Beach Invs., LLC v. Kimley-Horn & Assocs., 207 3d 1012 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017), Sunset Beach hired Kimley-Horn to "provide professional design and permitting consulting services" for the development a beachfront property.
Michael E. Kiefer, Jr., EIT, served as the Project Manager for Kimley-Horn. Although Kiefer coordinated the Project, there were also licensed engineers on the team and Kiefer did not manage the licensees' work.
After issues on the Project, Sunset Beach filed suit against Kimley-Horn, later adding Kiefer and two licensed engineers as Defendants. The only claim against Kiefer was professional negligence.
Kiefer moved for summary judgment, alleging Sunset Beach had failed to state a cause of action against him for professional negligence and argued he was immune to the claim as he was not a licensed professional, not subject to regulation by the statute, and did not sign or seal any engineering plans. Kiefer also testified EITs do not practice engineering and must work under the supervision of a licensed engineer.
The Trial Court agreed and granted Kiefer's Motion for Summary Judgment, holding Kiefer could not be liable for professional negligence as he "was not a licensed engineer . . . was not a 'design professional' . . . was not a 'licensed professional' at any time material." The Trial Court also noted Kiefer did not sign and seal and plans and did not use a professional designation during the Project.
On appeal, Sunset Beach argued Kiefer was a "professional" as his work required "special education, training, experience and skill." The Appellate Court rejected Sunset Beach's argument, finding it would lead to confusion and "would require courts to decide what qualifies as 'special education,' what qualifies as 'training', what is acceptable 'experience'."
Instead, the Appellate Court upheld the Trial Court's decision, outlining that pursuant to Moransais v. Heathman:
. . . where the negligent party is a professional, the law imposes a duty to perform the requested services in accordance with the standard of care used by similar professionals in the community under similar circumstances.
744 So.2d 973, 975-976 (Fla. 1999). However, as an EIT, Keifer was not a "professional", he did not meet the requirements of a licensed engineer, and therefore he was not subject to a claim for professional negligence.
The Appellate Court went on to find:
[a]t a minimum, in a profession where a license exists, the existence of a license is a valid barometer for determining whether a person is classified as a professional.
The Appellate Court also held that where a license exists, the Legislature has determined the necessary steps required to obtain that license. Here, the Legislature has defined "engineer" and that definition does not include EITs. In fact, the Legislature has a separate definition for "engineer intern", who are "neither licensed nor regulated."
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