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When Can A Homeowner Sue for Construction or Design Defects?

Homeowners often ask what legal remedies exist against builders, design professionals, and other parties for defects in design or construction of their homes.  Often times, however, the defect is not readily apparent, and is therefore not discovered for several years after the homeowner begins residing in the house.

Most non-lawyers are aware of the four year Statute of Limitations for many cases, such as contract cases.  What most people do not understand, however, is that the Statute of Limitations can be extended if the damages or defective condition are not discovered immediately.  Typically, a Statute of Limitations commences to run at the instant that a right to sue arises, which is usually when a contract is breached or a personal injury is sustained.  Because strict adherence to a Statute of Limitations can cause injustice in the limited class of matters in which the injury or defect is not discovered for some time after it occurs.  For this reason, Courts have applied what is called the “discovery rule” to soften the application of the statute of limitations.  The “discovery rule” provides that the Statute of Limitations does not start until a defect or event giving rise to the right to bring a law suit is discovered or reasonably should have been discovered.  Therefore, in the case of defects in the construction of a residential structure, the Statute of Limitations does not begin to run until the defect in design or construction is discovered or should have reasonably been discovered. 

This sounds like good news for the homeowner discovering that the architect who designed his or her home designed a roof at an incorrect pitch, or that the builder erected a wholly structurally unsound building.  The Statute of Repose for Construction projects, however, may stand in the way of a suit against the architect or builder to recover for these defects even with the benefit of the “discovery rule” in extending the Statute of Limitations. 

The Statute of Repose is a law which bears some similarities to a Statute of Limitations, but differs in substantial ways.  In sum, the Statute of Repose abolishes a cause of action after a certain period regardless of when a defect or event giving rise to the right to sue is discovered.  In Pennsylvania, the Statute of Repose for Construction Projects is twelve years from the completion of construction of the structure in question.  Therefore, any claim against an architect, builder, or contractor must be brought within twelve years of the date of the completion of the defective design or work.  It should be noted that the Statute of Repose does not extend the applicable Statute of Limitations – if a defect is discovered or reasonably should be discovered when the defective design or defective work occurs, or earlier than the twelve year Statute of Repose period, the Statute of Limitations applies.  Interestingly, the Statute of Repose has been interpreted not to bar a suit against manufacturers of defective building products, and therefore the “discovery rule” applies to cases involving such defective building products.

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