Construction professionals such as architects, engineers, builders, and subcontractors are in the business of making structures that can last for centuries. Unfortunately, the longer the life of the structure, the longer construction professionals could be exposed to liability.
Imagine how frustrating it would be to get sued today for a building completed in 1999. The world was different back then. Some construction standards and practices in place in 1999 were very different than they are today. It may be difficult for a jury to apply the standard in effect at the time rather than today’s standard.
Furthermore, the key documents, along with the people who worked on the project, might not be available. The memories of those still around might have faded or become distorted over time. Some people have a hard time remembering what they did last month, not to mention a conversation that took place over a decade ago.
These are just some of the obstacles blocking the path of the search for truth. Is it really fair to hold construction professionals liable when the key evidence has been lost or altered due to the passage of time?
The Iowa legislature has recognized construction professionals should expect to be free from liability for injuries and damages occurring long after construction is completed in some situations. The legislature has passed two types of laws fixing the time within which construction professionals can be held liable for certain construction-related problems.
These laws encourage timely resolution of disputes and promote justice by disposing of old claims and shifting liability to those in control of the property. Without these laws construction professionals could be liable for their work indefinitely.
The first type of law is a statute of limitations. A statute of limitations begins on the date the injury is discovered. The statute of limitations in Iowa for oral contracts and property damage is five years. The limitations period for lawsuits based on written contracts is ten years.
An owner with a written contract for a project completed in the year 2000, for example, could sue the construction professional until the year 2015 if the owner did not, and could not have reasonably discovered the breach until 2005.
The other type of law is a statute of repose. A statute of repose is considered tougher than a statute of limitations because it cuts off legal rights after the mere passage of time. The statute of repose begins to run on the date the project is completed. It does not wait for an injury to occur.
The Iowa legislature has decided the appropriate amount of time construction professionals should expect to be held liable for certain actions is fifteen years. For example, with some exceptions, under the statute of repose a construction professional could not be sued for negligence or breach of implied warranty more than fifteen years after the project was completed, even if the building collapsed. It is important to know the statute of repose has to be raised in court by the construction professional or it is forfeited.
Iowa has the longest statute of repose of any of the surrounding states. In Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, the statute of repose is ten years. The proper length of a statute of repose has been the subject of much debate. Extremely short statutes of repose have been overturned by courts on constitutional grounds. Statutes of repose between six and ten years, however, have survived such attacks in other states.
A shorter statute of repose would be a significant benefit to construction professionals in Iowa. A ten year statute of repose perhaps strikes a better balance between the need for the law to afford a redress for an injury and the need to limit liability for construction professionals after a certain amount of time has passed.