Transportation Eng’g, Inc. v. Cruz, 2014 Fla. App. LEXIS 18273 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 5th Dist. Nov. 7, 2014)

The Florida Department of Transportation (“DOT”) hired Transportation Engineering, Inc. (“TEI”) to design, and D.A.B. Constructors, Inc. (“DAB”) to install, median guardrails along the Florida Turnpike.  After the installation project, a woman was killed when a vehicle in which she was a passenger struck an uncushioned guardrail end in a “clear zone,” an area next to a road where drivers can attempt to regain control of errant vehicles.  The woman’s estate filed suit against DOT, TEI, and DAB, alleging, in relevant part, that TEI and DAB negligently designed and constructed the guardrail ends without “crash cushions.”

The parties established during discovery that DOT’s own “Design Standards” required crash cushions on guardrail ends in clear zones.  However, DOT’s preliminary guide drawings, issued to TEI for the project, specified uncushioned ends.  TEI attempted to conform to the Design Standards by proposing enhancements to the guide drawings.  DOT dismissed these attempts and ultimately accepted design plans TEI submitted depicting uncushioned guardrail ends.  DAB then installed the guardrails according to TEI’s plans and DOT accepted the work.

TEI and DAB sought summary judgment based upon the Slavin doctrine, under which a contractor cannot be held liable for injuries sustained by third parties when the injuries occur after the contractor completes its work, the property owner accepts the contractor’s work, and the defects causing the injury were patent.  The parties did not dispute that the existence of uncushioned guardrail ends in clear zones was an open and obvious condition.  The court granted DAB’s motion, expressly concluding that DOT accepted DAB’s work and that the guardrail’s lack of a crash cushion was a patent defect, but denied TEI’s motion.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of DAB, but held that TEI was also entitled to summary judgment based on Easterday v. Masiello, in which the Florida Supreme Court reasoned that if Slavin applied to contractors, “logic dictates that it would apply likewise to architects and engineers.”  Where Slavin barred the plaintiff’s claims against DAB, it also barred her claims against TEI, because the nature of the alleged defect and the patency of that defect were the same, and there could be no dispute that DOT had actual knowledge of the alleged defect where DOT expressly required TEI to design the guardrail ends without crash cushions.

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