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Construction Design Malpractice Actions in Florida:  Which Limitation Period Applies?
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Construction Design Malpractice Actions in Florida: Which Limitation Period Applies?

July 7, 2014 Construction Industry Legal Blog

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Design Professionals, such as architects and engineers, may be subject to malpractice actions arising from their performance of professional services.  The Florida statute of limitations for professional malpractice claims is two years. Unlike other professionals in Florida, design professionals may also be subject to causes of action arising from services rendered in the design or planning of construction projects.  The limitations period for actions arising out of the design, planning or construction of an improvement to real property is four years.  Due to the nature of their profession, design professionals will inevitably face the apparent conflict between the two limitations periods.  Whether you are pursuing or defending an action against a design professional arising from a construction project in Florida, understanding which limitation period applies is critical.

Pursuant to Section 95.11(4)(a), Florida Statutes, an action for professional malpractice, other than medical malpractice, brought by persons in privity with the professional, shall be commence within two years from the time the cause of action is discovered or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence.  Because the statute does not define the term “professional,” Florida courts applying the statute have provided some guidance.[1]  Notwithstanding the courts’ interpretation of the term, it is well established that design professionals, such as architects and engineers, are deemed professionals under the professional malpractice statute of limitations.[2]

However, there has been some confusion as to which limitation period applies in actions against design professionals arising from services rendered in construction projects.  Any action founded on the design, planning or construction of an improvement to real property shall be commenced within four years from the date of specific events that trigger the limitation period.[3]  In such actions, the applicable limitation period is critical because design professionals may be subject to conflicting statutory provisions—that is, whether the two-year professional malpractice or the four-year design, planning or construction limitation period governs.

Florida courts have grappled with this very issue.  Although the courts agree upon a general rule of statutory construction, the applications of the rule have led to divergent outcomes.  The prevailing rule holds that a specific statute of limitations addressing itself to a specific matter takes precedence over a more general statute of limitations, even though the specific statute provides for a shorter period of limitations.[4]  Therefore, the determinative inquiry is whether Section 95.11(3)(c) or Section 95.11(4)(a) more specifically addresses actions against design professionals arising from the design, planning or construction of an improvement to real property.

In Baker County Medical Services, Inc. v. Summit Smith LLC, a case involving the design, furnishing and installation of an HVAC system in a hospital, the court concluded that the two-year statute of limitations—not the four-year limitations period—applied to bar the hospital’s action against the engineers for professional malpractice.[5]  The court relied on the principal of statutory construction set forth in Dubin, reasoning “where a general law that applies to numerous classes of cases conflicts with the law that applies only to a particular class, the latter, or more specific law, generally controls even when, in regard to statute of limitations, the general provision provides for a longer period than the more specific provision.”[6]  But without further explanation or analysis, the court held that “the two-year statute of limitations for actions of professional malpractice is the more specific statute, since it applies to a very specific class of a cause of action, as opposed to Section 95.11(3), which covers actions dealing with a broad class of claims dealing generally with improvements to real property.”[7]

Following that same reasoning, a majority of Florida courts have found just the opposite: actions against design professionals arising from an improvement to real property are a class of claims more specifically addressed by the four-year limitation period.  In School Board of Seminole County v. GAF Corp., the Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court’s determination that Section 95.11(3)(c) applied to claims against an architect.[8]  “[T]he language of the four-year statute is much more specifically applicable to these suits against [the architect] than the two-year statute, which generally references ‘professional malpractice’ suits.”[9]  On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the decision, stating “we agree with the district court that the language of (3)(c), rather than (4)(a), is more specifically applicable to this case.”[10]  The high court recognized that the Second District Court of Appeal also applied the four-year statute of limitations on similar facts.[11]

In a more recent federal case, the court found that the Baker County court erred in its analysis on this issue, finding that Florida courts “have repeatedly applied paragraph (3)(c) rather than (4)(a) in suits against architects and engineers.”[12]  The Lillibridge court refused to extend another Middle District decision, instead deferring to the uniformity of many of the aforementioned state court decisions interpreting Florida’s statute of limitations.

The underlying rule of statutory construction—the more specific statute takes precedence over the more general, conflicting statute—is buttressed by the principal that courts often construe statutes based on legislative intent.  Where the intent is clear through specificity, specificity prevails.  But where there is doubt as to legislative intent pertaining to the statute of limitations, the preference is to allow the longer period of time.[13]  Any uncertainty as to which limitation period applies to actions against design professionals in the improvement of real property should militate toward the longer four-year limitation.

Advocates for design professionals in a malpractice action will—and should—argue that the two-year statute of limitations period applies to limit the time period for malpractice liability.  Determining whether the circumstances of the cause of action meet each of the requirements of Section 95.11(3)(c) is critical in understanding which limitation period applies.   Although Florida courts have clearly established that the four-year limitation applies to design professionals in actions founded on the improvement of real property, a claimant should not rely on the longer limitation period.  Claimants in privity with design professionals should determine whether the cause of action truly arises from the improvement of real property, and pursue any claims diligently.

[1] See Pierce v. AALL Insurance Inc., 531 So. 2d 84 (Fla. 1988) (defining “a profession as a vocation requiring as a minimum standard, a college degree in the specified field”).

[2] Id. at 87.

[5] Baker County Medical Services, Inc. v. Summit Smith LLC, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44154 (M.D. Fla. May 29, 2008).

[6] Id at *46 (citing Sheils v. Jack Eckerd Corp., 560 So. 2d 361 (Fla. 2d DCA 1990).

[7] Id. at *46–7.

[9] Id. at 1210.

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