Professional malpractice claims in the construction industry present unique questions with respect to statute of limitations issues. One particular challenge practitioners often encounter is determining which statute of limitations applies to each claim. When problems occur on a construction site, owners and developers often involve their design professionals and expect that they will be held at least partially responsible for any legal losses.
In the last decade, Florida courts have produced conflicting opinions on the issue of the proper statute of limitations to apply to professional malpractice claims brought against design professionals such as architects and engineers.
This issue recently took center stage in the case of American Automobile Ins. v. FDH Infrastructure Services, LLC, No. 3D22-1143 (Fla. 3d DCA, May 31, 2023), where the Florida Third District Court of Appeal grappled with the question of whether the two-year statute of limitations for professional malpractice claims or the four-year statute of limitations for actions related to the design, planning, or construction of real property improvements would govern.
Tragically, this case involved a construction accident that resulted in multiple fatalities. A contractor had been hired to install an antenna on an existing television tower, and in turn, the contractor engaged an engineering firm to conduct a structural analysis of the tower's stability and weight-bearing capacity. The engineering firm was also responsible for assessing the proposed rigging plan for lifting the necessary loads during the antenna installation. However, disaster struck when the rigging components failed, causing workers to fall to their deaths.
Following the accident, the insurers paid out benefits and then sought to recover their losses by suing the engineering firm using equitable and contractual subrogation theories. The engineering firm moved for summary judgment, arguing that the subrogation claims were barred by the two-year statute of limitations for professional malpractice claims as outlined in section 95.11(4)(a) of the Florida Statutes. The trial court agreed with the engineering firm's argument and granted summary judgment in their favor. On appeal, however, that decision was overturned.
The Statute of Limitations at Odds in This Case
A statute of limitation is a prescribed amount of time by which a party must bring a claim, or forfeit their right to do so. Design professionals in Florida are potentially governed by two separate statute of limitations.
- The first is found in §95.11(4)(a) and provides that, "an action for professional malpractice, other than medical malpractice, whether founded on contract or tort, must be filed within two years."
- The second is found in §95.11(3)(c) and states that "A four year statute of limitations will apply to any action founded on the design planning, or construction of an improvement to real property."
Given the high likelihood of conflicting interpretations of these two statutes as they apply to various fact patterns in each case, Florida courts have consistently found themselves trying to determine which statute of limitations should apply. Florida courts look to the case of Carcaise v. Durden, 381 So.2d 1236, 1237 (Fla. 5th DCA 1980) when confronted with two determining which statute of limitations is applicable to a particular case. Carcaise set out the following considerations:
- Does a specific statute preempt a more general statute?
- Was a later statute given effect after an earlier statute?
- When in doubt the longer statute of limitations should ordinarily prevail.
In the case at hand, the engineering firm was tasked with assessing the safety and structural integrity of the tower and rigging plan before actual construction began at the site. This fact led the court here to conclude that insurer's claim was primarily based on a construction claim as it involved improvement to real property. Based on this assessment, the court found that the insurer's claim was subject to the four year statute of limitations and reversed the trial court's decision on this issue.
This case highlights the importance of understanding the intricacies of statutory limitations when defending professional malpractice claims in the construction context. The difference between the two-year statute of limitations for professional malpractice claims and the four-year statute of limitations for actions related to the design, planning, or construction of real property improvements can affect the defense strategy and may allow a design professional an early opportunity to exit from the case.
With this in mind, it is very important early on to identify the nature of the claim alleged against your professional client. Determine whether it falls within the realm of professional malpractice or if it is more closely related to the design, planning, or construction of improvements to real property. This initial assessment will help guide your approach to statute of limitations analysis.