How Florida Law Protects Builders from “Stale” Defective Construction Claims
It is not uncommon for Florida builders to receive complaints from dissatisfied customers over an alleged defect in their new home. But Florida law does impose certain time limits on defective construction claims. Specifically, there is a 10-year statute of repose on any lawsuit based on the “design, planning, or construction of an improvement to real property.”
What this means in practice is that once the owner takes possession or a certificate of occupancy has been issued for the home, the builder cannot be held legally responsible for any construction defect discovered more than 10 years later. The purpose of this time limit, as a Florida appeals court explained in a 2002 decision, is to “protect engineers, architects and contractors from stale claims.”
Court: Attic Ladder Qualifies as “Improvement” to Real Property
In a more recent case, Harrell v. Ryland Group, the Florida First District Court of Appeals clarified the importance of the word “improvement” in the statute of repose. This lawsuit involves an allegedly defective attic step-ladder. In July 2003, the defendant entered into an agreement to build and sell a house. The defendant completed construction in April 2004 and a certificate of occupancy was issued. The owners took possession of the property in May 2004.
In June 2012, the plaintiff was using the attic ladder when it collapsed underneath him. In June 2016, the plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging it was negligent in “failing to ensure that the attic ladder was installed in a secure manner with the appropriate hardware” and “failing to verify that the ladder was secure before selling the home.” The defendant argued that since more than 10 years had elapsed since the original owners took possession of the house, the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by the statute of repose.
Both the trial court and the First District agreed and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims. As the First District explained, this case turned on whether or not the attic ladder itself qualified as an “improvement to real property.” If the ladder was not an improvement, the statute of repose would not apply. But based on the facts presented here, the appeals court was satisfied the ladder was an improvement.
By a strict dictionary definition, the appeals court observed, an improvement is any “addition to property, [usually] real estate, whether permanent or not; [especially] one that increases its value or utility or that enhances its appearance.” The attic ladder “unquestionably” provided “added utility” to the house, the Court said, adding, “[n]othing in the statutory language or dictionary definition requires the addition to significantly increase the value or utility of the property or to be essential to the property.”
Need Advice from a Qualified Florida Defective Construction Claim Lawyer?
The statute of repose is just one of many Florida laws specific to the construction industry. This is why it is always a good idea to work with an experienced Florida construction law attorney when defending against a defective construction claim. Contact Linkhorst & Hockin today if you need advice or assistance related to any construction law matter.