by Gary Taylor
(Iowa Supreme Court, June 12, 2009)
Statute of repose did not bar church’s claim against city for negligent severing, then reconnection of sewer line during 1978 water main installation project.
The City’s liability turned on the interpretation of whether the water main installation project was an “improvement to real property” under Iowa Code 614.1(11). This provision is a statute of repose that bars a claimant from bringing “an action arising out of the unsafe or defective condition of an improvement to real property . . . more than fifteen years after the date on which occurred the act . . . [that] cause[d] . . . the injury. . . .” Thus, regardless of when an injury occurs, this statute of repose terminates any right of action fifteen years after the date of the improvement. If the statute applies, St. Paul’s claim would be barred since the reconnection of St. Paul’s sewer line occurred twenty-seven years before sewage backed up into the church and this action was commenced. The City argued that work on St. Paul’s sewer line should be considered part of the water main improvement project because cutting St. Paul’s sewer line would have not been done but for the water main installation project. St. Paul’s, on the other hand, argued that the reconnection of its sewer line was not an improvement, but rather a repair resulting from the water main project that improved neither the function nor the value of the sewer line.
The district court found in favor of the city, reasoning that the retrofit of the Church’s sewer line was a collateral step in and a consequence of the new water main’s installation. Further, and because of the faulty retrofit, the water main improvement project was defective at that time and at that location. It was because of that defect
that the Church eventually incurred its damages.
The Supreme Court reversed. Relying on the testimony of a building official and inspector employed by Webster City for over forty-one years who is also a licensed plumber, the Court determined that it would have been possible to complete the water main project without touching St. Paul’s sewer line and therefore the negligent reconnection of St. Paul’s sewer line was not part of the project to improve the City’s water main. It further found that the reconnection of the sewer line (and not the water main project) also was not an “improvement to real property” as set forth in case law. While it was “a permanent addition to or betterment of real property that involved the expenditure of labor or money,’ it did not “enhance the property’s capital value,” nor was it “designed to make the property more useful or valuable.” Rather than an improvement to real property, the reconnection of the sewer line was more appropriately characterized as an ordinary repair. Therefore, the statute of repose did not bar St. Paul’s claim.
In 1978, during Webster City’s water main installation project, a city contractor severed and then negligently reconnected St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church’s gravity flow sewer line. Twenty-seven years later, in 2005, sewage backed up into the church resulting in $30,000 in damages. St. Paul’s brought a suit against the City to recover damages.