Case note: Christian Education Ministries – Qld Ltd v Thomson Adsett Pty Ltd [2015] QDC 292

Architects, Engineers & Surveyors – Negligence – Breach of Contract – Professional Negligence – Architect’s Negligence Cases – Architect’s Negligence Examples

The Design Brief

Thomson Adsett Pty Ltd (Architects) were retained to provide architectural services for the construction of a new multi-purpose assembly hall/sports building (Hall) at the Australian Christian College Moreton at Caboolture (School).

The School claimed that it gave an express instruction to the Architects that the Hall was to have a full-sized basketball court. The dimensions of a full-sized basketball court are a minimum length of 32 metres, a minimum width of 19 metres and a minimum height of 7 metres.

The School claimed that it clarified with the Architects, on several occasions, that the Hall would contain a full-sized basketball court. However, conflicting instructions were given by the School’s principal, Mr Woodward and by the CEO of Christian Education Ministries, Mr Fyfe.

The Architects said that Mr Woodward told them that formal basketball games would not be played in the hall because the School only had 60 students from Prep to Year 12. The Architects said that the design was made to keep the cost of construction controlled for the School.

In an email to the Architects the CEO said the Hall should be, ‘large enough for an indoor volleyball or basketball game’. The drawing that was provided to the School had the words, ‘full-sized basketball court’ on it. However, the brief contained no reference to any affiliations, documents or specific use guidelines such as International Basketball Federation Basketball Rules 2008 Basketball Equipment or Basketball Queensland.

The Architects did not clarify their instructions from the School in writing.

The School used the plans designed by the Architects for the construction of the Hall by a builder. When the Hall was partly constructed, the School discovered that the height of the roof was only 4.4 or 4.2 metres. When the School discovered the problem, it instructed the Architects to redesign the roof, to increase the height to 7 metres, where the basketball court was to be located.

The Issue

The School’s case was that even if conflicting instructions were given to the Architects, the Architects breached their retainer or were negligent for failing to clarify the School’s instructions before making the design. There was no dispute that the Architects accepted that Mr Fyfe had authority to make decisions over the School’s principal, Mr Woodward.

The Expert Evidence

The School called Alan Jordan, Architect, as their expert at trial. Mr Jordan’s evidence was that critical factors are usually confirmed in writing by architects.  Mr Jordan’s evidence was that the Architects’ actions in failing to clarify the instructions from the School in writing, led to the School paying a premium to get what they had initially asked for.

The Architects called Scott Peabody, Architect, as their expert at trial. Mr Peabody’s evidence was that the Architects prepared plans that were consistent with the brief provided by the School. He also noted that there was no reference in the brief to industry specific guidelines concerning the specifications the basketball court should meet.

The Judgment

In a judgment delivered in the District Court on 26 November 2015, the Court found as follows:

  1. The School had given an express instruction to the Architects for the design to include a ‘full-sized basketball court’.
  2. Any comments made on behalf of the School to the effect that it would not play formal basketball games were superseded by the instructions from the CEO of the Christian Education Ministries, Mr Fyfe, that the School required a full-sized basketball court.
  3. The Architects failed to follow the express instructions given by the School.
  4. The Architects were negligent and breached their retainer. The Court awarded damages in favour of the School in the sum of $505,004, including interest of $138,738.04.

Considerations

Here, the School succeeded against the Architects because:

  • findings of fact about the instructions provided were resolved in favour of the School; and
  • the Architects could not effectively defend the case where they failed to clarify conflicting instructions of the School in writing, before making the design.

This case will be of interest to architects, engineers and surveyors, as well as those managing professional indemnity claims against these professionals.