Where a subcontractor employee of the prime contractor was injured on a job site, it filed suit against the Architect, claiming negligence in preparation and approval of design plans and specifications, failure to adequately design, and failure to monitor and supervise the execution of the plans to ensure safety at the job site.  Summary judgment of the Architect was granted, but reversed by an appellate court and then reinstated by the state supreme court, which held the Architect cannot be held liable for failing to perform duties it had no responsibility or authority to undertake. Bonilla v. Verges Rome Architects, 2023-00928 (La. 2024).

Architect contract as well as the contractor’s contract clearly placed site safety responsibility on the contractor and not the Architect.  Periodic site visits by the Architect cannot be construed as supervision of the construction work.  The mere fact that the architect was involved in the construction process and had contractual duties owed to the project Owner did not create a duty to protect everyone from every risk that could be encountered at the site.  The documents made the contractor responsible for construction means and methods and so clearly placed responsibility for site safety on the contractor that summary judgment must be granted to the Architect.

The employee in question was performing demolition work while standing on the concrete ceiling slab of vault located on the second floor of a building.  The supervisor of that employee advised him to use a hydraulic jackhammer and continue his work after having already taking down most of one sidewall and a section of the front wall.  While doing so, the entire vault structure collapsed and the employee sustained injuries.

In analyzing the arguments on the summary judgment, the state supreme court explained that the duty owed a contractor’s employee by an architect or engineer is determined by the express provisions of the contract between the parties.  The contracts in question appear to be based on the AIA contract document for construction and the AIA contract document for design services (although is not expressly stated by the court).

Some of the articles quoted from the contractor’s client read in part as follows:

“2.3 … The undertaking of periodic visits and observations by [Architect] or his

associates shall not be construed as supervision of actual


3 2.4 [Architect] will visit the site periodically to

familiarize himself with the progress and quality of the

work. On the basis of his observations, he will keep the

Owner informed of the progress of the work and shall

submit weekly reports with photographs. [Architect] shall

endeavor to protect the Owner against defects in the work.

2.5 [Architect] will not be responsible for nor control

the construction means, methods, safety precautions and

programs. [Architect] will not be responsible for the

Contractor to carry out the work in accordance with the

Contract Documents, or the Contractor’s acts or omissions

or the acts or omissions of his Subcontractors or employees.

* * *

4.7 The Contractor shall direct the work using his

full attention and shall be entirely responsible for all

construction means and methods.

* * *

**5 10.1 The Contractor shall be responsible for

initiating, maintaining, and supervising all safety

precautions and programs. He shall take all reasonable

precautions for the safety and shall take all reasonable steps

to prevent damage, injury, or loss of the work itself and

all material and equipment incorporated; or property at the

site or adjacent thereto, and all employees or other persons

affected by the work.

* * *

10.3 The Contractor shall erect and maintain, as required by

existing conditions and progress of the work, all reasonable

safeguards for safety and protection….

* * *

10.8 The Contractor shall designate a responsible member

of its organization at the site whose duty shall be

the prevention of accidents. This person shall be the

Contractor’s superintendent unless otherwise designated by

the Contractor in writing to the Owner and the Consultant.”

The Design Agreement provides in pertinent part:

“F(5) [Architect] will make site visits to the site as required

(with a minimum of one per week) to review the progress

and quality of the Work and to determine, in general, if

the Work, when fully completed, will be in accordance

with the Construction Documents and the Construction

Progress Schedule. On the basis of its on-site observations,

[Architect] will keep the Owner informed of the progress

and quality of the work performed, and report known

deviations from the Contract Documents, deviations from

the most recently approved construction schedule, and

shall endeavor to protect the Owner against defects and

deficiencies observed in the Work.

* * *

F(8) [Architect] shall not have control over, charge of,

or responsibility for the construction means, methods,

techniques, sequences, or procedures, or for safety

precautions and programs in connection with the Work,

nor shall the [Architect] be responsible for the Contractor’s

failure to perform the Work in accordance with the

Construction Documents. [Architect] shall not have control

over or charge of, and shall not be responsible for, acts

or omissions of the Contractor or of any other persons or

entities performing portions of the Work.”

The injured employee argued that Section F(5) of the Design Agreement imposes a duty on VRA to supervise and report any deviations from design specifications to ensure work site safety. Alternatively, he argued there is an extra contractual duty imposed on the architect to use reasonable care to protect against injury to third parties (like the subcontractor’s employee) who may reasonably be foreseen to be at risk by deviation from or inadequate supervision of design specifications.

In opposition to those arguments the Architect in this case argued that under the General Conditions and the Design Agreement, no duty is owed to Mr. Bonilla as relates to the means, methods, or safety of the demolition of the vault. The architect also argued that “Section F(5) of the Design Agreement was not intended to make it responsible for the means and methods of construction and site safety; instead, [the architect] avers that Section F(5) ensures that, before final acceptance of the work, the owner will have the building it had contracted for.”

The court concluded: “We agree. The clear and unambiguous language, General Conditions and Design Agreement dictate that [the Architect] owes no duty to Mr. Bonilla.”

Risk Management Comment:  The court applied the clearly written language of these contracts to enforce the provisions that the contractor had sole responsibility for site safety.  The architect here apparently took no action in the field that would countervail the clear intent of the contract.  No argument was made that it had instructed the contractor on how to perform the work or had somehow involved itself in decisions concerning the contractor’s means and methods or site safety procedures.


About the author: Article written by J. Kent Holland, Jr., a construction lawyer located in Tysons Corner, Virginia, with a national practice (formerly with Wickwire Gavin, P.C. and now with ConstructionRisk Counsel, PLLC) representing design professionals, contractors and project owners.  He is founder and president of a consulting firm, ConstructionRisk, LLC, providing consulting services to owners, design professionals, contractors and attorneys on construction projects.  He is publisher of ConstructionRisk Report and may be reached at Kent@ConstructionRisk.com or by calling 703-623-1932.  This article is published in ConstructionRisk Report, Vol. 26, No. 4 (May 2024).

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