Contractor Liable Thirteen Years After the Fact??

Earl K. Messer | Taft Stettinius & Hollister | June 28, 2019

Imagine you built a school back in 2005. Years go by. Many employees who worked on the project are gone. Their emails are no longer available to review. Most other records are buried somewhere, maybe. The owner has handled maintenance year after year without your input. The building has aged and felt the effects of changing weather. And then, you are sued, thirteen years after the job is complete—for moisture intrusion. What a nightmare.

The Ohio Court of Appeals for Stark County has just considered such a case and affirmed the trial court’s application of the ten-year statute of repose to bar the claim. Unfortunately, it’s not over yet. The appellate court ruled on May 6, 2019, and the local school district has filed motions to have that ruling reversed. There is probably plenty more litigation to come in this case. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, though, it is constructive to consider what issues are at stake, for both contractors and owners. Ohio has a statute of repose. This is different from a statute of limitations. Most people understand that a statute of limitations sets a time within which a lawsuit must be filed or the claim is lost. The thing that fewer fully understand is that the clock for the statute of limitations may not start to tick until the injured party has reason to believe it has been damaged. In other words, defective construction that a reasonable person would not detect for a while does not start the statute of limitations clock ticking until something occurs to give the owner reason to believe there may be defective work. Think a slow leak inside a building wall that causes wood to rot and mold to grow, but otherwise does not become evident to the owner for five years. Typically, the statute of limitations clock would not begin to tick during those five years. Since the current statute of limitations for breach of contract in Ohio is eight years, the contractor would be exposed to suit for defective work for at least thirteen years.

That would only be the case, though, if the statute of limitations was the only time cut off for construction claims. It is not. Ohio, as well as many other states, also has a statute of repose. The statute of repose in Ohio basically cuts off any ability to sue after ten years following substantial completion. There is an exception if the owner discovers the defects in the final two years of the ten-year period. If the owner does discover defects in those last two years, it gets two more years before it no longer has a claim against the contractor.

So, what does the Stark County case have to do with this? In that case, the contractor, the architect and the contractor’s bonding company were sued for moisture intrusion related issues over thirteen years after the project had been completed. The owner alleged that the Ohio School Design Manual required the defendants to warranty their work for forty years for minor repairs and, astoundingly, one hundred years for major structural or exterior enclosure repairs. The defendants filed motions to dismiss arguing that the statute of repose barred the school district’s claims because it was filed thirteen years after substantial completion, three years beyond the expiration of the statute of repose. On appeal, the appellate court, so far, has affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.

The school district made several arguments as to why the appellate court should have reversed the trial court. The most troublesome for contractors was that when the contractor and the architect agreed in their contracts to be bound by the Ohio School Design Manual, they were more or less agreeing that the school district could make claims against them for up to one hundred years despite the statute of repose. The appellate court did not reject that argument. Instead, it avoided it on a technicality. The school district had not raised that argument with the trial court, and an appellate court will not consider any argument on appeal that a party failed to make first to the trial court. So, contractors can expect owners in the future to test that argument in another case.

Having said that, it seems fairly clear that if the argument had been made to the trial court, the appellate court would have rejected it. The school district’s warranty claim is nothing more than another kind of breach of contract claim. The appellate court affirmed all the good reasons why a breach of contract claim cannot be brought after ten years. All those reasons would apply just as well to a breach of warranty claim, since the warranty was part of the written contract between the parties. Those reasons were that the architect and contractor had no control over the building or its maintenance for all those intervening years. They had no control over extreme weather events that may well have affected the building over thirteen years. Much of the relevant evidence would simply be gone after thirteen years.

So, what is the practical import of all of this?

  1. Both the contractor and the owner should hang on to their written records, including electronic records, for at least ten years, and possibly up to twelve, following project completion.
  2. Owners need to keep their eye on the clock up to ten years after the project is complete in case they may have any viable claims.
  3. Remember that the longer it takes to litigate a matter, the more unclear many things become. For example: what really caused the moisture problems—was it defective work, poor maintenance, natural wear and tear? The owner has the burden of proof to show that it was defective work that caused the problem.
  4. And the longer it takes to litigate, the fewer witnesses that will remain available and the more distant and foggy the memories will be.

Say What? Statutes of Repose/Limitation May Not Be Defenses in Arbitration?

David K. Taylor and Kyle M. Doiron | Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP | May 2, 2019

Most private construction contracts contain binding arbitration clauses and apply the “law of the state where the project is located.” While arbitration is less formal than court/litigation, legal defenses are often raised, including whether a claim is barred by a statute of limitation or, in the case of construction claims, a statute of repose. A statute of repose, as opposed to a statute of limitation, with a few exceptions, means that no matter when the claimed defect is “discovered,” the claim is barred if not brought within a specific period of time after substantial completion. For example, in Tennessee a claim must be brought within four years of substantial completion or that claim is barred by the statute or repose. However, a recent arbitration ruling raises concerns about whether such statutes will apply in arbitration.

Most statutes of repose (and limitation) apply to “any and all actions.” In a recent arbitration case, an owner brought a $1.5 million defective work claim against its prime contractor 10 years after substantial completion of a project that was located in Tennessee. The contractor moved to dismiss the claim based upon Tennessee’s four-year statute of repose. However, the owner cited a few reported court cases (none from Tennessee) and argued that the word “action” in the statute of repose was intended by the legislature to apply only to court cases, not to arbitration. One point made by the owner was that the statute of repose was passed decades prior to any state passage of arbitration laws allowing courts to enforce arbitration agreements. The contractor argued that if statutes of repose (and limitation) do not apply when the parties agree to binding arbitration, contractors (and subcontractors) would have unlimited liability for years–even decades–after substantial completion.

A few states have surprisingly adopted the owner’s argument. However, in most of those cases, the state legislatures jumped in to clarify the law (but not in time for the particular contractor who had lost the argument).

The Tennessee arbitration panel ruled that the four-year statute of repose did not apply in arbitration, even though it was undisputed that the arbitration was commenced 10 years after the project was completed. The panel commented that this problem was up to the Tennessee Legislature to fix. The contractor was then forced to defend the owner’s alleged defect claim. While the panel ultimately found in favor of the contractor, the legal and arbitration fees were extensive and would have been avoided if the arbitration panel had applied the statute of repose.

What can be done to avoid such a result? One way is not to agree to arbitration. However, there are many other reasons to choose arbitration, and it has become the preferred method of dispute resolution in most design and construction contracts. Another suggestion is to check each state’s statute of repose to determine if the applicable state statutes use the same word “action” and then review any published case law on the issue. A proactive approach might include lobbying state legislatures to amend their statutes to ensure that “arbitration” is included in the definition of “action.” Finally, a helpful contract drafting suggestion would be to include, in any contract that calls for binding arbitration, a provision that states that in any arbitration the parties agree that the arbitrator(s) must apply any applicable statutes of repose and limitation.

Say What? Statutes of Repose/Limitation May Not Be Defenses in Arbitration?

Kyle Doiron and David Taylor | Buildsmart | May 2, 2019

Most private construction contracts contain binding arbitration clauses and apply the “law of the state where the project is located.” While arbitration is less formal than court/litigation, legal defenses are often raised, including whether a claim is barred by a statute of limitation or, in the case of construction claims, a statute of repose. A statute of repose, as opposed to a statute of limitation, with a few exceptions, means that no matter when the claimed defect is “discovered,” the claim is barred if not brought within a specific period of time after substantial completion. For example, in Tennessee a claim must be brought within four years of substantial completion or that claim is barred by the statute or repose. However, a recent arbitration ruling raises concerns about whether such statutes will apply in arbitration.

Most statutes of repose (and limitation) apply to “any and all actions.” In a recent arbitration case, an owner brought a $1.5 million defective work claim against its prime contractor 10 years after substantial completion of a project that was located in Tennessee. The contractor moved to dismiss the claim based upon Tennessee’s four-year statute of repose. However, the owner cited a few reported court cases (none from Tennessee) and argued that the word “action” in the statute of repose was intended by the legislature to apply only to court cases, not to arbitration. One point made by the owner was that the statute of repose was passed decades prior to any state passage of arbitration laws allowing courts to enforce arbitration agreements. The contractor argued that if statutes of repose (and limitation) do not apply when the parties agree to binding arbitration, contractors (and subcontractors) would have unlimited liability for years–even decades–after substantial completion.

A few states have surprisingly adopted the owner’s argument. However, in most of those cases, the state legislatures jumped in to clarify the law (but not in time for the particular contractor who had lost the argument).

The Tennessee arbitration panel ruled that the four-year statute of repose did not apply in arbitration, even though it was undisputed that the arbitration was commenced 10 years after the project was completed. The panel commented that this problem was up to the Tennessee Legislature to fix. The contractor was then forced to defend the owner’s alleged defect claim. While the panel ultimately found in favor of the contractor, the legal and arbitration fees were extensive and would have been avoided if the arbitration panel had applied the statute of repose.

What can be done to avoid such a result? One way is not to agree to arbitration. However, there are many other reasons to choose arbitration, and it has become the preferred method of dispute resolution in most design and construction contracts. Another suggestion is to check each state’s statute of repose to determine if the applicable state statutes use the same word “action” and then review any published case law on the issue. A proactive approach might include lobbying state legislatures to amend their statutes to ensure that “arbitration” is included in the definition of “action.” Finally, a helpful contract drafting suggestion would be to include, in any contract that calls for binding arbitration, a provision that states that in any arbitration the parties agree that the arbitrator(s) must apply any applicable statutes of repose and limitation.n

Is Equipment Installed As Part Of Building Renovations A “Product” Or “Construction”?

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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).[4] 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.[5]

The Court looked to the Washington Supreme Court decision in Condit v. Lewis Refrigeration Co.[6] 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.”[7]

The Court of Appeals went on to contrast the decisions in Pinneo v. Stevens Pass, Inc.[8] and Yakima Fruit & Cold Storage Co. v. Central Heating & Plumbing Co.[9], 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.”[12] 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.

[1]Major League Baseball Stadium Pub. Facilities Dist. v. Huber, Hunt & Nichols-Kiewit Constr. Co., 176 Wn.2d 502, 511, 296 P.3d 821 (2013).

[2]RCW 4.16.300; RCW 4.16.310.

[3]5 Wn. App.2d 800, 428 P.3d 415 (2018).

[4]Chapter 7.72 RCW.

[5]5 Wn. App.2d 800 at 813 .

[6]101 Wn.2d 106, 676 P.2d 466 (1984).

[7]Id. at 112.

[8]14 Wn. App. 848, 545 P.2d 1207 (1976).

[9]81 Wn.2d 528, 503 P.2d 108 (1972).

[10]Pinneo, 14 Wn. App. at 849

[11]Yakima Fruit, 81 Wn.2d at 529-31.

[12]Puente, 5 Wn. App.2d 800 at 812.

In Massachusetts, the Statute of Repose Applies to Consumer Protection Claims Against Building Contractors

Shannon M. Warren | The Subrogation Strategist | January 4, 2019

In Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Construction, Inc., 105 N.E.3d 224 (Mass. 2018), the Supreme Court of Massachusetts determined that the statute of repose barred the plaintiff’s consumer protection claims commenced more than six years after the occurrence of the event that gave rise to the claims. In Bridgwood, the homeowner filed suit against the contractors who had performed renovations 15 years earlier. The homeowner asserted that concealed faulty electrical work caused a fire 11 years after the work was completed. The complaint alleged that the contractors, by violating Mass. Gen. Laws. Chapter 142A §17(10), committed an unfair and deceptive act pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 93A.

Section 17(10) prohibits contractors from violating building laws and specifically states that a violation of Section 17(10) constitutes an unfair and deceptive act as defined by Chapter 93A. Chapter 93A is regarded as one of the most stringent consumer protection statutory schemes in the nation, and allows litigants to seek remedies such as treble damages and attorney fees.

The renovation contract required the defendant general contractor to comply with all applicable codes, to ensure that all necessary permits were obtained prior to the commencement of any renovations, and to inspect all work. The general contractor was authorized to hire subcontractors to perform the work, but remained responsible for overseeing the subcontractors’ work to ensure that it was in conformity with the contract. Additionally, the general contractor was to certify compliance with all applicable regulations, including the home improvement contractor laws set forth in Chapter 142A.

The general contractor hired an electrical subcontractor to perform the electrical work. The plaintiff alleged that the contractors failed to obtain permits, did not perform any inspections, and performed electrical work that did not meet code requirements. Significantly, the electrical wiring at issue was located in a concealed space, so was not readily visible after the contractor completed the renovations.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the plaintiff’s Chapter 93A claims were time-barred because the plaintiff’s complaint was filed after the six year statute of repose expired. The plaintiff argued that the statute of repose did not apply to her consumer protection claims under Chapter 93A. Thus, the Supreme Court was called upon to determine whether the statute of repose applied to the plaintiff’s Chapter 93A claims. Central to the resolution of that question was whether the plaintiff’s Chapter 93A claims were based on tort principles rather than contract principles.

The Supreme Court, looking at the substance of the action, found that the plaintiff’s Chapter 93A claims were indistinguishable from negligence claims because the plaintiff alleged that the defendants failed to perform the electrical work in conformity with the standards set forth in Chapter 142A §17(10). Thus, the court held that the plaintiff’s Chapter 93A claims were subject to the six-year statute of repose. To reach its decision, the court rejected the notion that a plaintiff may circumvent the statute of repose by relabeling a tort claim as a Chapter 93A violation.

The Bridgwood case is a good reminder of the importance of performing a thorough legal analysis to determine the applicability of “case killers” such as the statute of repose. Without understanding the foreseeable defenses of a claim, plaintiffs may expend valuable resources to pursue claims that are time-barred or are otherwise destined for dismissal. While there are times that exercising creativity is appropriate, subrogation practitioners should always be mindful that advancing such arguments may create law when uncertainty is more favorable in a given jurisdiction.