Appellate Ruling Brings Needed Clarity to Statute of Limitations in Construction Malpractice Suits Against Design Professionals

B. Michael Clark, Jr.
July 3, 2023


A recent ruling by Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal has clarified the question of whether a negligence claim against a design professional on a construction project is subject to the four-year or two-year statute of limitations set forth in Fla. Stat. §95.11. The Third DCA held that construction-related malpractice suits against design professionals are subject to the four-year rather than two-year statute of limitations.

In Am. Auto. Ins. v. FDH Infrastructure Servs., an engineering firm was sued after a construction accident claimed the lives of three workers during an installation on a nearly 1,000-foot tall telecommunications tower. The lower court granted summary judgment to the engineering firm, finding that the two-year statute of limitations for professional malpractice claims barred the lawsuit. In the ensuing appeal the plaintiff argued that the four-year statute of limitations for construction-related claims should apply instead of the two year, more general statute of limitations.

Prior to this decision, which statute applies was a legal ambiguity which implicated two different statutes of limitations. One sets a period of two years for actions for professional malpractice, other than medical malpractice, and the other provides for four years for any action based on the design, planning, or construction of an improvement to real property. The uncertainty resulted in prior conflicting rulings applying each of the two- and four-year statutes.

In the recent unanimous decision, the Third District Court of Appeal found that one statute is narrowly tailored to construction-based claims, while the other generally applies to all professional malpractice claims. The specificity of the four-year statute of limitations to construction lawsuits therefore preempts the two-year statute of limitations for general professional malpractice actions.

The appellate panel also considered whether this suit involving an antenna installation on a telecom tower can be classified as construction under the purview of the four-year statute of limitations. In contrast to a cited case involving engineering inspections for potential defects to a completed project, the panel found that this case was over the assessments and calculations for the structural integrity of an existing tower and the development of a rigging plan for the addition of a new antenna. As such, it concluded the claim was construction-based because it involved the planning of an improvement to real property.

With its reversal of the trial court’s summary judgment, the Third DCA’s decision establishes a clear precedent for the application of the four-year statute of limitations for malpractice lawsuits against design professionals in construction matters. The ruling will prove to be very important and helpful in enabling owners and developers to move forward with construction malpractice and negligence actions against design professionals with clarity about which statute applies.

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