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Indiana justices outline ‘improvement to real property’

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For the first time, the Indiana Supreme Court addressed what constitutes an “improvement to real property” as mentioned in the construction statute of repose. In doing so, the justices reversed the trial court’s grant of a contractor’s motion for summary judgment in a wrongful death claim.

In 2007, Sharon Gill filed a complaint in Marion Superior Court against Evansville Sheet Metal Works and 18 other defendants asserting wrongful death claims. As to ESMW, she sought damages on theories of products liability and contractor negligence. Her husband worked at Aluminum Company of America in Newburgh and was allegedly exposed to and inhaled asbestos fibers during the course of his employment. He was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease in 2004 and died of lung cancer in 2005.

ESMW allegedly worked as a contractor for Alcoa at a common worksite with Gill’s husband.

The Marion Superior Court placed the complaint on its Mass Tort Asbestos Litigation Docket and eventually granted ESMW’s motions for summary judgment on the grounds that Gill’s product liability and contractor negligence claims were barred by the product liability statute of repose and construction statute of repose, respectively. At issue Monday was only whether the construction statute of repose applied.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding Gill brought her claim outside the 10-year period stipulated in the statute, so her claim was barred.

Indiana courts have yet to define the meaning of “improvement to real property” as used in Indiana Code 32-30-1-5 (2004). The justices cited the statute in effect at the time of Gill’s complaint even though the statute was amended in 2005. Justice Frank Sullivan noted the court perceived no substantive difference between the former version and the current one.

Looking at how other states have handled this issue, the justices decided to take the “commonsense” approach that looks to the ordinary or plain meaning of the phrase. Whether something is an improvement to real property under the commonsense approach is a question of law, but its resolution is grounded in fact, Sullivan wrote in Sharon Gill, on her own behalf and on behalf of the Estate of Gale Gill v. Evansville Sheet Metal Works, Inc., 49S05-1111-CV-672.  

The high court held that an “improvement to real property” is an addition to or betterment of real property, that is permanent, that enhances the real property’s capital value, that involves the expenditure of labor or money, that is designed to make the property more useful or valuable, and that is not an ordinary repair.

“In applying this commonsense definition, judges and lawyers should focus on these individual criteria but they should not lose sight of the fact that this is a definition grounded in commonsense,” he wrote. “The fact that a purported improvement satisfies each of these individual criteria may not be sufficient for it to be an improvement within the meaning of the CSoR if it would do violence to the plain and ordinary meaning of the term as used in the construction context.”

In this case, ESMW failed to make a prima facie showing that its work at Alcoa constituted an improvement to real property. The justices remanded for further proceedings.

The justices also addressed the COA’s criticism of that Marion County court following its local rule allowing pre-discovery motions for summary judgment. They agreed with the COA judges that whether something is an improvement to real property is a fact-sensitive inquiry that may require discovery in some cases, but disagreed with the conclusion that Local Rule 714 can’t be applied in this context.

 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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