Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, can be held for tort. Others, almost never. But, what is the difference when they are being sued? Dormitory Auth. of the State of N.Y. v Samson Constr. Co. 2018 NY Slip Op 01115 Decided on February 15, 2018 Court of Appeals DiFiore, Ch. J. with its two dissenting opinions, does not exactly clear up the issue.
“The two questions on this appeal are whether plaintiff City of New York (the City) is an intended third-party beneficiary of the architectural services contract between plaintiff Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) and defendant Perkins Eastman Architects, P.C. (Perkins) and whether DASNY’s negligence claim against Perkins is duplicative of its breach of contract claim. We hold that summary judgment should have been granted in defendant Perkins’ favor on both issues.”
“”It is a well-established principle that a simple breach of contract is not to be considered a tort unless a legal duty independent of the contract itself has been violated” (Clark-Fitzpatrick, Inc. v Long Is. R.R. Co., 70 NY2d 382, 389 ). Put another way, where the damages alleged “were clearly within the contemplation of the written agreement . . . [m]erely charging a breach of a duty of due care,’ employing language familiar to tort law, does not, without more, transform a simple breach of contract into a tort claim (70 NY2d 390).
We have also recognized that “[a] legal duty independent of contractual obligations may be imposed by law as an incident to the parties’ relationship” and that several types of defendants — including professionals — can be held liable in tort “for failure to exercise reasonable care, irrespective of their contractual duties” (Sommer v Federal Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 551 ). In certain circumstances, this independent duty has been imposed based on the nature of the services performed and the defendant’s relationship with its customer — specifically, where the defendant “perform[s] a service affected with a significant public interest [and where the] failure to perform the service carefully and competently can have catastrophic consequences” (79 NY2d at 553). To determine whether a tort claim lies, we have also evaluated the nature of the injury, how the injury occurred and the harm it caused (see 79 NY2d at 552). However, we have made clear that “where plaintiff is essentially seeking enforcement of the bargain, the action should proceed under a contract theory” (79 NY2d at 552).
Here, the negligence allegations in the complaint are, as we held in Clark-Fitzpatrick, “merely a restatement, albeit in slightly different language, of the implied’ contractual obligations asserted in the cause of action for breach of contract” (70 NY2d at 390). Indeed, as noted above, in this case, the factual allegations set forth in each cause of action are identical, except that the negligence claim is framed in terms of Perkins’ failure to comply with professional standards of care. Moreover, despite the fact that the complaint seeks an additional unspecified $4 million in damages under the negligence cause of action, it fails to include a single allegation that contains any distinction between the damages applicable to either claim. The only damages alleged under either theory of recovery are the additional expenses required to complete the project, including the costs to repair the damage to adjacent structures. Significantly, in the contract itself, the parties contemplated Perkins’ responsibility for additional costs or expenses incurred by DASNY or the Client (in effect, the City) as a result of the architect’s design errors or omissions, and addressed it in the contract terms. Likewise, during discovery, the total amount of damages was detailed by DASNY, with no distinction between the “additional expenses” incurred based on one claim or the other.”
Clearly, there are circumstances where a professional architect may be subject to a tort claim for failure to exercise due care in the performance of contractual obligations. In seeking to “disentangl[e] tort and contract claims,” we focused in Sommer both on potential catastrophic consequences of a failure to exercise due care and on the nature of the injury, the manner in which it occurred, and the resulting harm (79 NY2d at 552). We distinguished between the situation where the harm was an “abrupt, cataclysmic occurrence” not contemplated by the contracting parties and one where the plaintiff was essentially seeking enforcement of contract rights (79 NY2d at 552). Here, the C & D building settled during the course of several months, damaging adjacent structures. However, even if any “abrupt” or “catastrophic” consequences either could have or did result from Perkins’ alleged negligence, the fact remains that the only damages alleged appear to have been within the contemplation of the parties under the contract — and, indeed, as set forth above, are identical for both claims. Put another way, there was no injury alleged here that a separate negligence claim would include that is not already encompassed in DASNY’s contract claim. In these circumstances, DASNY “is essentially seeking enforcement of the bargain, [and] the action should proceed under a contract theory” (Sommer, 79 NY2d at 552). Thus, we hold that the negligence claim is duplicative of the breach of contract cause of action and Perkins’ motion for summary judgment to dismiss that cause of action should have been granted.”
From the Dissent
“New York recognizes a distinct claim for professional malpractice and allows parties to pursue simultaneously a professional malpractice claim and a breach of contract claim (see Santulli v Englert, Reilly & McHugh, 78 NY2d 700 ); Sears, Roebuck v Enco, 43 NY2d 389 ; see also Robins v Finestone, 308 NY 543 ). That is because, as the majority recognizes, a tort claim may be maintained in addition to a contract claim where there is a “breach of a legal duty independent of the contract” (see Sommer v Federal Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 551 ). Such an independent legal duty “may be imposed by law as an incident to the parties’ relationship. Professionals, common carriers and bailees, for example, may be subject to tort liability for failure to exercise reasonable care, irrespective of their contractual duties” (id.). Under the clear language of Sommer, architects, by their status as professionals, have the requisite independent legal duty. Of course, a contract might incorporate that duty and the standards of professional negligence, and might or might not include other requirements. Whether the contract includes terms beyond the duty of care owed by a professional in the field, a plaintiff can elect to bring a claim for professional malpractice, breach of contract, or both.
In Santulli, we reversed the Appellate Division’s grant of summary judgment on plaintiff’s breach-of-contract claim, allowing him to proceed at trial on both a legal malpractice and a breach-of-contract claim arising from the same alleged misfeasance, rejecting defendant’s argument that a breach-of-contract action may lie against a professional only where “there is either a specific promise by the attorney to perform and there is a complete failure of any performance or where the attorney has undertaken a specific task and has failed to perform that task” (78 NY2d at 706). In Sears, Roebuck, although the case came to us on a motion to dismiss, not a motion for summary judgment, we held that “inasmuch as the relationship between Sears, Roebuck as property owner and Enco Associates as architects had its genesis in the contract between them . . . the owner may recover contract damages against the architects either on the theory of breach of a particular contract provision or on the theory of failure to exercise due care in the performance of the contract services” (43 NY2d at 392-393).
Contrary to the majority’s contention, Brushton-Moira Cent. School Dist. v Thomas Assoc. (91 NY2d 256 ) has nothing to do with a plaintiff’s ability to bring both claims simultaneously. The sole issue in that case [*3]was whether damages should be measured at the time of breach or the time of trial. Moreover, the majority mischaracterizes the Appellate Division’s decision in that case. The Appellate Division did not hold — or even suggest — that a party may not simultaneously pursue both a malpractice claim and a contract claim through the conclusion of trial. Instead, the plaintiff in Brushton-Moira had pursued both such claims through trial. Supreme Court denied recovery to the plaintiff on both theories. The Appellate Division reversed and awarded judgment to the plaintiff on its contract claim, and held that, because the proof and damages on the malpractice claim were identical, the plaintiff was not aggrieved by Supreme Court’s dismissal of the malpractice claim, because recovery on the contract claim fully compensated the plaintiff (195 AD2d 801, 801-802 [3d Dept 1993]; see Parochial Bus Sys., Inc. v Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 60 NY2d 539, 544  [“Generally, the party who has successfully obtained a judgment or order in his favor is not aggrieved by it, and, consequently, has no need and, in fact, no right to appeal”]). Thus, Brushton-Moirasupports DASNY’s ability to pursue both theories through the completion of trial, and certainly contains no implication that a pretrial dismissal on the ground of duplication is appropriate. Today’s decision cannot be squared with our prior precedents.”