Joshua Lane | Ahlers Cressman & Sleight | March 20, 2019
A statute of repose terminates the right to file a claim after a specified time even if the injury has not yet occurred. The construction statute of repose bars claims arising from construction, design, or engineering of any improvement upon real property that has not accrued within six years after substantial completion. But what constitutes an “improvement upon real property” necessitating application of the six-year bar, and when does the bar NOT apply?
The Washington Court of Appeals recently addressed these questions in Puente v. Resources Conservation Co., Int’l. There, the personal representative of the estate of Javier Puente sued several parties after Mr. Puente, an employee of a manufacturer, suffered fatal boric acid burns in 2012 while performing maintenance on a pump system installed at the manufacturer’s facility in 2002. The estate alleged claims of negligence and liability under the Washington Product Liability Act (WPLA). The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, concluding that the installed pump system constituted a statutory “improvement upon real property” and the six-year statute of repose applied. The estate appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the faulty pump system equipment, while “integral” to the manufacturing process at issue, was not so integrated into the facility as to render it an integral part of the building structure. Indeed, the court held that the equipment was an “accoutrement … to the manufacturing process taking place within the” building.
The Court looked to the Washington Supreme Court decision in Condit v. Lewis Refrigeration Co. There, the Court concluded that the conveyer belt and refrigeration unit that caused the injury to the plaintiff was not an improvement upon real property but was engineered and designed as part of the “manufacturing process taking place within the improvement.”
The Court of Appeals went on to contrast the decisions in Pinneo v. Stevens Pass, Inc. and Yakima Fruit & Cold Storage Co. v. Central Heating & Plumbing Co., where the improvement was found to be an integral part of the building structure and the statute of repose applied. In Pinneo, the operator of the Stevens Pass ski area retained a contractor to replace and install a ski lift. In Yakima Fruit, the repair of a building refrigeration system required the removal of an entire floor of the building structure and could not be accomplished with either the system or the building remaining intact.
The Court in Puente determined that the pump system at issue was more akin to the conveyer belt and refrigeration unit in the Condit case than the ski lift in Pinneo or building refrigeration system in Yakima Fruit because the pump system was not necessary to the function of the building and was not part of the building’s “construction” but “simply ‘house[d]’ within the … building.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that the lawsuit was subject to product liability law and not the six-year statute of repose that would bar the claim under the construction law statute.
The determination of whether a mechanical system within a building constitutes an “improvement upon real property” and is therefore subject to the six-year statute of repose hinges on whether the system must be integrated into and become a part of the building itself.
Comment: The extent of equipment’s “integration” within a structure – much like the degree to which property is a fixture or merely chattel – is not merely a theoretical academic question but has serious liability implications for the equipment’s owner. In addition to keeping in mind the statute of repose, when considering actions and defenses arising out of the installation of equipment in construction projects that is not integral to building operations, counsel should carefully consider whether product liability or construction law applies. Varying applications will have significant effect on the law governing particular claims and defenses.
Major League Baseball Stadium Pub. Facilities Dist. v. Huber, Hunt & Nichols-Kiewit Constr. Co., 176 Wn.2d 502, 511, 296 P.3d 821 (2013).
RCW 4.16.300; RCW 4.16.310.
5 Wn. App.2d 800, 428 P.3d 415 (2018).
Chapter 7.72 RCW.
5 Wn. App.2d 800 at 813 .
101 Wn.2d 106, 676 P.2d 466 (1984).
Id. at 112.
14 Wn. App. 848, 545 P.2d 1207 (1976).
81 Wn.2d 528, 503 P.2d 108 (1972).
Pinneo, 14 Wn. App. at 849
Yakima Fruit, 81 Wn.2d at 529-31.
Puente, 5 Wn. App.2d 800 at 812.