One of the key concepts at the heart of Board complaints and civil claims against a design professional is whether or not that design professional complied with the applicable standard of care. In order to prevail on such a claim, the claimant must establish (typically with the aid of expert testimony) that the design professional deviated from the standard of care. On the other side of the coin, to defend a design professional against a professional malpractice claim, defense counsel attempts to establish that – contrary to the claimant’s allegations – the design professional, in fact, complied with the standard of care. Obviously, it becomes very important in such a claim situation to determine what the standard of care is that applies to the conduct of the defendant design professional. Often, this is easier said than done. There is no dictionary definition or handy guidebook that identifies the precise standard of care that applies in any given situation. The “standard of care” is a concept and, as such, is flexible and open to interpretation. Traditionally, the standard of care is expressed as being that level of service or competence generally employed by average or prudent practitioners under the same or similar circumstances at the same time and in the same locale. In other words, to meet the standard of care a design professional must generally follow the pack; he or she need not be perfect, exemplary, outstanding, or even superior – it is sufficient merely for the designer to do that which a reasonably prudent practitioner would do under similar circumstances. The negative or reverse definition also applies, to meet the standard of care, a practitioner must refrain from doing what a reasonably prudent practitioner would have refrained from doing.
Although we have this ready definition of the standard of care, in any given dispute it is practically inevitable that the parties will have markedly different opinions as to: (1) what the standard of care required of the designer; and (2) whether the defendant design professional complied with that requirement. The claimant bringing a claim against a design professional typically will be able to find an expert reasonably qualified (at least on paper) who will offer an opinion that the defendant failed to comply with the standard of care. It is just as likely that the counsel for the defendant design professional will be able to find his or her own expert who will counter the opinion of the claimant’s expert and maintain that the defendant design professional, in fact, complied with the standard of care. What’s a jury to think?
The concept of standard of care is intertwined with the legal concept of negligence. In the vast majority of law suits against design professionals, a claimant (known as the plaintiff) will assert a claim for negligence against the design professional now known as the defendant.1 As every first year law student learns while studying the field of “Torts,” negligence has four subparts. In order for a defendant to be found negligent, the claimant must establish four elements: (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) causation; and (4) damages. In other words, to establish a claim against a defendant design professional, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care but breached that duty and, as a result, caused the plaintiff to suffer damages.