Construction worker working on a wood frame of a building under construction, with ladder nearby.

In Harrell v. The Ryland Group (Fla. 1st DCA Aug. 13, 2019), a homeowner was injured when an attic ladder collapsed underneath him. The homeowner sued the builder, alleging that the builder was negligent in its installation of the ladder.

The builder moved for summary judgment, arguing that the homeowner’s claim was barred by the statute of repose. The statute of repose, codified at Section 95.11(3)(c), Florida Statutes, requires an action founded on the construction of an improvement to real property to be brought within 10 years of the date the owner takes possession of the property (or certain other events not relevant here).

The trial court granted summary judgment, finding that the installation of the ladder was an improvement to real property as defined in the statute of repose. The trial court also found that the statute of repose applied because the accident happened more than ten years after the original owners took possession of the home.

The First DCA affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment order. The legislative intent of the statute of repose is to protect engineers, architects, and contractors from stale claims. Thus, the statute applies if the homeowner’s suit was founded on the “construction of an improvement to real property.”

Because the Legislature did not define “construction” or “improvement” in the statute, the First DCA referred to Black’s Law Dictionary to determine the ordinary meaning of the words. The current edition of Black’s defines “construction” as “the act of building by combining or arranging parts or elements,” and defines “improvement” as “an addition to property, [usually] real estate, wether permanent or not; [especially] one that increases its value or utility or that enhances its appearance.”

A prior Florida Supreme Court opinion, relying on the 1972 edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, defined “improvement” as “a valuable addition made to property (usually real estate) or an amelioration in its condition, amounting to more than mere repairs or replacement of waste, costing labor or capital, and intended to enhance its value, beauty or utility or to adapt it for new or further purposes.”

The First DCA held that an attic ladder meets meets both definitions of an “improvement.” The ladder was an affixed addition to real property, and provided added utility. Under the older definition, the ladder is an addition to the property, cost labor and capital to install, and enhanced the value and utility of the property. Furthermore, nothing in the statute or dictionary definitions requires an addition to significantly increase the value or utility of the property to be deemed an improvement. Thus, the statute of repose applied to the homeowner’s claim.

Because it was undisputed that the original owners took possession of the property more than ten years before the subject incident, the claim was properly barred under the statute of repose.