Cole, Scott and Kissane (“CSK”) recently won two very significant personal injury cases arising from construction projects on behalf of design professionals based on the Slavin Doctrine. The Slavin doctrine prevents an injured Plaintiff from holding a contractor liable for injuries caused by a patent, or obvious, defect in construction after control of the property has been turned over to the owner – that is, after completion and acceptance of construction. See Slavin v. Kay, 108 So. 2d 462 (Fla. 1958).
Though the doctrine initially applied only to contractors, the Florida Supreme Court extended it to design professionals in 1988. See Easterday v. Masiello, 518 So. 2d 260 (Fla. 1988). There are two rationales for the doctrine. The first rationale is that by accepting the defective condition, the owner in possession and control of the property, is charged with knowledge of the defect and responsibility for rendering the condition safe and warning of the dangerous condition until it is rendered safe. Because the design professional or contractor can no longer control the property, they have no opportunity to fix the condition or warn third parties of its existence. The second, related rationale is that the acts of the design professional or contractor are no longer the legal cause of the accident. The cause, instead, is the owner’s failure to render the condition safe.
Our firm is very proud to announce that it recently obtained a complete defense verdict in a wrongful death case following a three-week trial based on the Slavin doctrine. In that case, our firm defended a traffic engineer who designed an intersection in which a fatal accident occurred weeks after it became operational. At trial, we argued that even if the intersection was negligently designed, the engineer should not be held liable because 1) the defects were obvious, 2) the FDOT engaged in significant review of the engineering plans, and 3) the FDOT approved the plans prior to the construction of the intersection. In other words, the design was completed and accepted by FDOT prior to the accident. The jury returned its verdict and initially awarded damages of $7.7 million dollars but found that the engineer was not liable based on the Slavin doctrine. CSK’s client prevailed!
Last week, our firm obtained a complete defense final summary judgment in a motorcycle accident on behalf of a civil engineer who designed the roadway improvements where the accident occurred. The motorcyclist hit a curb that appeared to extend into the roadway. The curb was constructed per the engineer’s design.
The Plaintiff suffered severe closed-head injuries and several skull fractures, which allegedly causing impaired cognitive functioning. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. The Plaintiff, who himself owned a construction company, also claimed significant lost wages and several hundred thousand dollars in past and future medical expenses. In defense of the engineer, we argued that, based on the Slavin doctrine, any dangerous condition related to the design was above ground, not concealed, and readily observable to the City before it accepted the engineer’s design and was constructed in accordance with the design. The court agreed and granted a final summary judgment in favor of our client.
It is clear that the Slavin doctrine is alive and well. Fortunately, Florida case law continues to be favorable to contractors and design professionals in personal injury cases arising from construction projects when the alleged defect and its dangerous character is readily observable by the owner or his or her agents. CSK firm will continue to aggressively utilize the Slavin doctrine to defend these claims against the contractors and design professionals we are so fortunate to represent.