Church Sues Architect over Fire

What are a church’s rights when construction goes wrong?

Church Law and Tax 1992-01-01 Recent Developments

Church Property

A New York state court ruled that a church could sue an architect for damages sustained in a fire allegedly caused by faulty installation of insulation around light fixtures. A church hired an architect in connection with the renovation of its facility. Among other things, the renovation involved installation of insulation above the church ceiling. The contract between the architect and the church was a standard agreement requiring the architect to prepare design and construction documents for the project. The contract also imposed certain obligations upon the architect. One provision specified that “the architect shall visit the site at intervals appropriate to the stage of construction … to become generally familiar with the progress and quality of the work and to determine in general if the work is proceeding in accordance with the contract documents.” The contract further provided that the architect was not responsible for construction techniques or defects. After the renovation project was complete, a fire caused extensive damage to the property. An engineer later determined that the fire had been caused by the use of combustible insulation too close to recessed light fixtures. The church sued the architect for breach of contract and negligence, and a trial court ruled in favor of the church. A state appeals court agreed. The court noted that the contract specifically required the architect to inspect the project to ensure that it was being performed according to the plans. This duty was violated by the architect in this case, the court concluded. The court refused to honor the contract provision attempting to relieve the architect of liability for construction defects. It noted that such attempts to limit liability are “disfavored.” Further, to relieve architects of liability “would leave owners without recourse against architects who fail to fulfill their contractual duties to make timely and proper inspections.” The court also rejected the architect’s claim that he could not be responsible for the church’s loss because he had no knowledge of the correct way to install insulation. Again, this claim was inconsistent with the architect’s duties under the contract, and any inconsistency should be interpreted against the architect. Diocese of Rochester v. R-Monde Contractors, Inc., 562 N.Y.S.2d 593 (Sup. Ct. 1990).

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