The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in New Riegel Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn. v. Buehrer Group Architecture & Eng., Inc., which was released yesterday, marks a win for the principle of using legislative intent to guide a court’s statutory interpretation.
The court found that Ohio’s construction statute of repose applies to both breach of contract claims and tort actions. Whereas, the court had earlier held that a prior version of the statute only applied to tort claims. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce submitted to the court an amicus brief urging the court to apply the statute to contract claims, so we believe the decision that was reached will improve Ohio’s legal landscape.
A strong statute of repose is important because it will prevent liability in any lawsuit brought after a specified time even if that timeframe ends prior to an injury or damage occurring. A statute of repose brings certainty and predictability for architects, engineers and construction companies because without a statute of repose, those professionals could face liability on a project to build a bridge, road, structure or any other improvement for an indefinite amount of time.
To come to their decision, the Ohio Supreme Court looked at the statute – RC 2305.131 – as a whole and found that it tied the period of liability to contractual performance. The court also looked at the legislature’s intent and found that the purpose of the statute was to remedy the burden on design and construction professionals to maintain liability insurance and retain records throughout the useful life of an improvement by limiting their liability to ten years.
The decision in New Riegel will bolster Ohio’s legal climate by reducing liability for construction and design professionals because these companies will only face liability for contract claims including improper design and construction for ten years from the date of substantial completion of the project.
The ten-year statute of repose at issue in this case was enacted in 2004 by SB 80, which contained a package of landmark legal reforms. The Ohio Chamber championed the bill because the legal reforms in it helped create a reasonable and fair system of liability that is an essential part of Ohio’s healthy overall business environment.
The result in New Riegel was decided by a vote of 6-1 and the majority opinion was authored by Justice Judy French who faces a tough reelection campaign in 2020. Justice French has served Ohio well in her time on the state’s highest court and her opinion is another example of how she believes it is the role of the judiciary to follow the law and intent of the General Assembly.
Justice Sharon Kennedy, who is also on the ballot in 2020, agreed with Justice French that the construction statute of repose should apply to contract claims.
As the 2020 election gets closer and the balance of power on the court will be up for grabs, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce will continue highlighting the work of Justice Kennedy and Justice French because Ohio’s legal climate will suffer without their presence on the state’s highest court.