The Illinois Supreme Court’s holding in Thompson v. Gordon reinforces what cases such as Ferentchak v. Village of Frankfort, 105 Ill. 2d 474 (1985), have held for years: that the duties and obligations of a design professional, including the duty of care, are defined by contract.
By way of background, the defendant engineers entered into a contract to design improvements to roads adjoining a shopping mall and to design a replacement of an existing bridge over the interstate. The contract also provided that “the standard of care applicable to engineer’s services will be the degree of skill and diligence normally employed by professional engineers or consultants performing the same or similar services.” The bridge, as replaced pursuant to the plans, had a seven-inch high median, which was essentially identical to the median it replaced on the original bridge. Plaintiff, in an unsuccessful opposition to the entry of summary judgment, offered an expert affidavit expressing the opinion that the engineering standard of care required the design of a barrier on the bridge as opposed to merely “replacing” the raised median.
The appellate court, over a dissent, reversed the summary judgment. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the difference between the terms “replacement” and “improvements” made it clear that the specific terms of the contract did not require the redesign of the bridge deck, and that the standard of care provision of the contract related only to the express engineering services to be provided, as opposed to expanding the scope of services and duty of the engineers to redesign the “replacement” structure to include a barrier.
The impact of this case on design professionals is that the Supreme Court confirmed what was stated in Ferentchak, that the degree of skill and care required of the civil engineer depended on his contractual obligation and the scope of that duty was defined by the contract.
Additionally, the case reiterated useful guidelines regarding the interpretation of contracts:
- When contract terms are unambiguous, they are given their common meaning without outside evidence;
- When they are ambiguous (subject to more than one meaning), then you need additional evidence to figure out what the parties to the contract meant;
- Just because parties disagree as to a term's meaning does not make it ambiguous.
Thompson underscores the value of attorney review of a contract prior to execution. As in this case, the design professional was protected from liability based solely on the language of its contract.