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New Hampshire Supreme Court Upholds Statute of Repose Against Constitutional Challenge, Barring Claims Against Subcontractor and Design Professional

By Corey Giroux

On February 20, 2015, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of Jillian Lennartz v. Oak Point Associates, P.A., & a. In Lennartz, the plaintiff sought to recover for a personal injury suffered in 2009 which was alleged to have resulted from the faulty design or installation of a vent pipe in a laboratory facility on which construction had been substantially completed in 2003. In order to attempt to recover damages for the alleged injuries, the plaintiff brought suit against the subcontractor and design professional in 2012.

At the trial court, the defendants sought and were granted summary judgment on the basis of NH RSA 508:4-b, I, New Hampshire’s statute of repose. Among other things, the statute of repose bars actions to recover damages for injuries to person, property or economic loss arising out of a deficiency in the creation of an improvement to real property through the design, construction or inspection of the improvement, if the claims for damages are not brought within eight years from the date of substantial completion. At its core, the statute of repose is intended to prevent businesses in the construction industry from exposure to claims for injuries suffered many years after completing work on any particular project.

In this instance, the plaintiff’s injuries were alleged to have been suffered before the repose period expired, but the plaintiff brought suit against the defendants only after the eight year period from the date of substantial completion had expired. Among other arguments, the plaintiff principally argued that the statute of repose was unconstitutional as applied to her on an equal protection under the law basis, because her injuries were suffered before the repose period expired, but were barred only because her suit was filed after repose period expired. That plaintiff argued that this ran afoul of equal protection in so far as it prevented her from redressing injuries alleged to have occurred before the statute’s expiration, while others similarly injured that filed sooner would not have been barred by the court from proceeding with suit against the defendants.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court disagreed, holding the statute of repose constitutional as applied to the plaintiff’s claims because the statute is substantially related to an important governmental interest in protecting and relieving those in the construction industry from limitless liability under the discovery rule, which otherwise might infinitely suspend the limitations clock from running on the applicable limitations period until an injured party discovers its injury or should discover its injury in the exercise of reasonable diligence.

The Lennartz decision is an important one for those involved in the construction industry because it reaffirms an important limit to liability for builders and design professionals against claims brought long after the completion of a project. The decision should instill contractors, subcontractors and design professionals working in New Hampshire with further confidence that they will not be subject to liability for alleged defects decades after completion.

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