Injured parties claiming professional malpractice against licensed design professionals must present expert testimony to establish breach of the standard of care which would permit a reasonable inference of causation according to the Michigan Court of Appeals in a recent unpublished opinion.

In City of Huntington Woods v Orchard, Hiltz & McCliment, Inc., a non-privity municipality sued an engineering firm engaged by a neighboring municipality for professional malpractice arising from a road reconstruction project over which both municipalities maintained partial jurisdiction. Plaintiff argued the road prematurely deteriorated due to the engineer’s failure to properly inspect and monitor the construction pursuant to the engineer’s contracts with the other municipality.

At trial, it was undisputed the contract documents were not strictly followed. The engineer inspected and witnessed paving operations beyond the contractual seasonal limitations and permitted aspalt binder to be utilized other than what was specified by the design. To prove its claim, the plaintiff presented expert testimony that a prudent design professional should adhere to the contract documents, unless modified by a written change order. A jury entered verdict in plaintiff’s favor and the trial court denied the engineer’s request to enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The Court of Appeals reversed. According to the court, the plaintiff’s claim failed because no expert testimony directly linked the late paving and improper binder to plaintiff’s claimed damages. The mere fact that a design professional should generally follow contract documents was not enough. Plaintiff’s expert testimony did not show how the designer’s conduct actually caused the deterioriated concrete. 

When pursuing a claim against a design professional, credible expert testimony is a critical component of success.