[author: Aaron P. Shapiro]
Neiman v. Leo A. Daly Co.
COURT OF APPEAL, SECOND DISTRICT (October 30, 2012)
The “completed and accepted” doctrine prevents contractors from being held liable for injuries to third parties resulting from a condition of the contractor’s work when: (1) the work was accepted by the property owner; and (2) the condition that caused the injury was not latent or concealed. This case considered the applicability of the doctrine to the duties of an architect overseeing construction for the owner.
Plaintiff Ellen Neiman filed a personal injury action after falling down the stairs at a theater belonging to Santa Monica Community College (SMCC). The trial court granted the summary judgment motion of defendant architect Leo A. Daly Company (LAD) based on the affirmative defense of the “completed and accepted” doctrine. Ms. Neiman appealed the grant of summary judgment, arguing that she had raised a triable issue of material fact as to whether the lack of contrast marking stripes on the stairs where she fell was a latent defect.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the summary judgment. It first noted the policies behind the “completed and accepted” doctrine. The reasoning underlying the doctrine is that an owner’s acceptance of a contractor’s work functions as an intervening cause, which precludes privity between the contractor and the injured third party. It is, in essence, a public policy rationale that it is beneficial to have property owners inspecting accepted work for patent or obvious defects in order to ascertain the safety of that work. The doctrine is applicable even when the contractor was negligent in performing the work, as long as it has in fact been both completed and accepted. It is applicable only as to “patent” or obvious defects, and not those that are “latent” or hidden in nature.
The Court determined that evidence had been presented in SMCC’s discovery responses that the work was completed and accepted. Next, the Court looked to whether the condition causing the injury was latent by examining the very nature of the condition itself. The Court found that the purpose of contrast striping on steps “is to ensure that the location of each tread is readily apparent when viewed in descent”. Thus, because contrast striping is designed to be noticed, any reasonable inspection would disclose that the striping was absent and its absence was a patent defect.
The Court determined that, regardless of any potential negligence on the part of LAD, since the work had been accepted by SMCC and the defect was patent, the “completed and accepted” doctrine shielded LAD from liability. As both the conditions of the “completed and accepted” doctrine had been met, the Court affirmed the trial court’s granting of LAD’s motion for summary judgment.
This case affirms and expands the “completed and accepted” doctrine in a twofold manner. First, it expands the definition of a patent or obvious defect to include missing items that were called for in the plans and specifications, but would have been obvious on inspection. Second, it expands the scope of the doctrine to include design professionals. Both of these changes increasingly shift the burden of liability away from those responsible for building or designing the structure and onto the property owner.
For a copy of the complete decision see: