Federal Court in South Florida: Original Architect Liable for Design Flaws in Original Plans Despite Appointment of Successor Architect

By Allison K. Jones

The Unites States District Court for the Southern District Court of Florida issued an opinion in Hotels of Deerfield, LLC et al. v. Studio 78, LLC et al., (2022 WL 731944 (S.D. Fla., Mar. 11, 2022) (Singhal, J.)  holding a project’s original architect responsible for design flaws in his drawings, even though he had been replaced by a successor architect. This was the case even though the building was constructed solely based on the successor architect’s design and specifications. 1

This case involved the design of a new $10 million Fairfield Inn & Suites Hotel (“Fairfield”) project in Deerfield Beach, Florida. In 2017, Fairfield retained Studio 78, LLC to provide architectural and engineering services and serve as the Architect of Record for the project.  Studio 78 submitted its preliminary architectural designs but, six months into the project, Fairfield was so dissatisfied with the design that it replaced Studio 78 with a new design team to complete the hotel’s design. Construction was delayed and Fairfield filed suit against Studio 78 and its principal architect in early 2018, alleging Studio 78’s design was untimely, incomplete, flawed, and did not meet Florida Building Code.  Studio 78’s plans were never completed or submitted for permitting.  The successor architect redesigned the entire project from the beginning without using or relying on any of the previous design work from Studio 78.  The hotel was ultimately built to the successor’s drawings and specifications only and did not contain any of Studio 78’s original design.

Studio 78’s main defense in the litigation was Rule 61G1-18.002 of the Florida Administrative Code:

(1) A successor registered architect seeking to reuse already sealed contract documents under the successor registered architect’s seal must be able to document and produce upon request evidence that he has in fact recreated all the work done by the original registered architect. Further, the successor registered architect must take all professional and legal responsibility for the documents which he sealed and signed and can in no way exempt himself from such full responsibility.

All state architectural regulations and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards require a subsequent architect to check, remeasure, and integrate all prior work into the successor architect’s original submission and to keep written substantiation of the design process as if the architect had rethought and redrawn the entire design.  The architect shall not seal drawings, specifications, reports or other professional work which was not prepared by or under the responsible control of the architect.  States differ on what level of rework and redrawing is required of a successor architect, so strict attention must be paid to the applicable state’s current regulations.  To the extent a successor architect signs and seals original drawings prepared by a prior architect, those documents must be treated as though they are the successor architect’s original work.

Despite the express language in the Florida regulation, purportedly transferring full professional responsibility and legal liability to the successor architect, the Florida Court in Hotels of Deerfield found that the prior architect was equally responsible for the plans he had drawn, and liability had not transferred with the transfer of the design responsibility.  This was regardless of the fact that the drawings utilized, and the hotel that was constructed, in no way resembled the prior architect’s design. Studio 78 and its principal eventually settled the case

Only a handful of states have specific regulations about successor design professionals2, but caution must be employed to not rely solely on these regulations for protection against liability. Even with such a regulation, the Florida Court still found that the prior architect was liable for his design flaws.  Each set of stamped or sealed drawings is considered each separate architect’s copyrighted, original work.

The first and best line of defense is a well-drafted contract. That writing should spell out the liabilities and risks retained if a new architect is commissioned to replace the original on the project.  These terms can be easily added to the AIA prime design contracts or any other base contracts that may be utilized. 

  1. This decision extends the ruling in an earlier Florida state case, Villanueva v. Reynolds, Smith and Hills, Inc., that held original engineers who were replaced by successor professionals were still liable for their design flaws on a project.  Villanueva, 159 So. 3d 200 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2015).
  2. Note that some of these regulations occur in a state’s or municipality’s Building Code or Ordinances