Understanding the Statute of Repose

Understanding the Statute of Repose

Architects and other design professionals carry risk related to claims on past projects where they have completed all of their work. Statutes of repose and statutes of limitations provide definite ends to risk of potential claims being filed on projects. Both types of statutes vary from state to state. Statutes of limitations begin to run after a triggering event related to a specific claim as defined by the statute. Statutes of repose in the construction industry generally begin to run when the project is complete or substantially complete, and provide an outside timeframe for any claim to be brought related to the project.

Under Maryland law, a claim against an architect, professional engineer, or a contractor cannot accrue more than 10 years after the date the “entire improvement first became available for its intended use.” The rationale behind a statute of repose is that, if there is an issue with a project, it is likely to be discovered in the first few years of occupancy and that any meritorious claim against a design professional should be discovered within the statute of repose period. The statute of repose applicable to an owner, however, may be longer than 10 years (or not applicable at all), as explained by the Maryland Court of Appeals recently.

In January of 2012, an HVAC contractor arrived at a Chuckie Cheese to perform some repairs to the HVAC unit. He placed his ladder on a wall he presumed led to the roof. The wall actually enclosed an open-air garbage area. After mounting the wall and climbing over the ledge, the HVAC contractor fell 20 feet and subsequently died. The family filed a wrongful death suit against the owner of the shopping center, the property manager for the shopping center, and the Chuckie Cheese operator.

The building was completed in 1990. The owner, property manager, and operator moved to dismiss on the grounds that the claim accrued more than 20 years after the completion of the building (the timeframe for claims against an owner). The family argued that the because the three defendants were in possession and control of the property, they had an ongoing duty to keep the premises in a safe condition, i.e., the statue of repose did not apply. The Maryland Court of Appeals ultimately found in favor of the family filing the wrongful death suit, and allowed the case to proceed.

Understanding the statute of repose in the jurisdiction in which an architect practices is a good risk management practice. The statute of repose informs the risk associated with doing business in different states/jurisdictions, and – for many design professionals – informs their document retention policies. While the case described above does not involve a claim against a design professional, it does illustrate how the statute of repose – if applicable – can provide an avenue for a design professional to avoid being drawn into litigation on old projects.

Courtesy of Cooper Littlejohn, Esq. (pictured above), a lawyer with Lee/Shoemaker PLLC, a law firm devoted to the representation of design professionals in all facets of their business. Lee/Shoemaker PLLC is an Allied Member of AIA Potomac Valley.

This article is intended to provide general legal advice and should not be relied on for specific situations. Consult your attorney for specific legal advice applicable to your situation.

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