Professional vs. Ordinary Negligence Claims Against Contractors and Engineers

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the distinction between professional negligence vis‑à‑vis simple negligence.  This distinction was particularly important in Hamilton-King v. HNTB Georgia, Inc., 2011 WL 2716073 (2011) because the trial court previously excluded Plaintiffs’ expert testimony, an essential part of its professional negligence claim.  Without the expert testimony, Plaintiffs’ professional negligence claim was doomed.  The only remaining question was whether Plaintiffs also asserted claims of simple negligence.  Finding that the claims were based solely on professional negligence, the case was properly dismissed.

Background

Plaintiffs’ vehicle became disabled after an accident with another vehicle in a bridge construction zone on Interstate 95.  When Plaintiffs exited their vehicle, an oncoming van struck them, causing injuries to two Plaintiffs and killing another.  Plaintiffs asserted a claim against the bridge designer (“Designer”) and contractor (“Contractor”), alleging that bridge should have been designed with shoulders or additional lighting and signage. 

Procedural History

Designer and Contractor moved to exclude Plaintiffs’ expert witness’s testimony, challenging the expert’s qualifications and opinions.  They subsequently moved for summary judgment based on the lack of evidence of professional negligence. 

Finding that the expert testimony was not admissible, the trial court granted Designer’s and Contractor’s summary judgment.  The trial court excluded the expert testimony because Plaintiffs failed to provide any indication of the principles and methods employed by their expert in reaching his conclusions, and because such conclusions could not be validated against accepted standards, tested, or reviewed. The Plaintiffs appealed this ruling.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s exclusion of Plaintiffs’ expert testimony, stating that the trial court too rigidly applied the rules derived from Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786 (1993).  The Supreme Court granted certiorari on this issue.  Finding no manifest abuse of discretion, and noting the importance of the trial court’s gatekeeper role, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. 

Because the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s exclusion of Plaintiffs’ expert testimony, Plaintiffs’ claim of professional negligence was properly dismissed by summary judgment.  If the Plaintiffs asserted a claim of simple negligence, however, then the case would continue on that claim.  Thus, the sole remaining issue for the Court of Appeals was whether Plaintiffs asserted a claim of simple negligence. 

Did the Plaintiffs Assert a Claim of Simple Negligence?

The court first distinguished a claim based on simple negligence with one based on professional negligence.  A claim of simple negligence is based on administrative, clerical, or routine acts demanding no special expertise.  Such a claim addresses the efficacy of a professional’s conduct. 

In contrast, a claim of professional negligence attacks the exercise of professional skill and judgment within a professional’s area of expertise.  Such a claim attacks the propriety of a professional’s decision. 

The court held that Plaintiffs’ claim against Designer was based on professional negligence.  Plaintiffs’ claim relied on Designer’s alleged failure to exercise reasonable care in drafting architectural plans in substantial compliance with generally accepted engineering or design standards. 

Likewise, the court held that Plaintiffs’ claim against Contractor was based on professional negligence.  The claim relied upon Contractor’s alleged failures related to developing a traffic control plan, which required adherence to professional standards that incorporated engineering judgment.  Accordingly, the court held that the development of traffic control plans in a construction project is not an administrative, clerical, or routine act.

Finally, in response to Designer’s and Contractor’s motions for summary judgment, Plaintiffs discussed solely the testimony of experts and contained no argument based on simple negligence. 

Upon holding that Plaintiffs did not assert a claim of simple negligence, the court agreed that no genuine issues of material fact remained to be tried.  It therefore affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

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