Friday, June 19, 2009

What Goes Down Must Come Up

St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church v. City of Webster City, no. 07-1752 (Iowa June 12, 2009).

The church had a gravity flow connection to the city sanitary sewer that was installed when it was built in 1953.

In 1978 the city embarked on an extensive water system renovation project. While installing a water main a contractor severed the St. Paul sanitary connection and rerouted it around the water main using corrugated pipe rather than iron or clay as was required.

The repairs interfered with the operation of the sewer line . In 2005 the sewer line backed up, causing $30,000 in damage to the church and the church sued the city. The city countered, arguing that Iowa Code 614.1(11) which bars lawsuits relating to improvements to real property when fifteen years have elapsed.

The district court, Judge William Pattinson presiding, agreed with the city, granting judgment notwithstanding the verdict, although the jury had found that the bootleg repair was not an improvement to real property.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that an improvement to real property is 'a permanent addition to or betterment of real property that enhances its capital value and designed to make the property more useful or valuable, as distinguished from ordinary repairs'.

In the view of the Supreme Court, the record indicated that reconnection of the sewer line to the church was not part of the project to upgrade the city's water system. A city official testified that there was no need to cut the sewer line because the water main could have been reconfigured.

The Court concluded that the negligent repair of the sanitary sewer was not an improvement to real property that would bring it within the ambit of the statute of repose. The Court identified the four factors that define an improvement to real property:
  • a permanent addition to or betterment of real property
  • that enhances its capital value
  • involving the expenditure of labor or money
  • that is designed to make the property more valuable or useful as distinguished from ordinary repairs.
Replacing the original rigid lines with corrugated pipe only satisfied two of these considerations because it was permanent and involved the expenditure of labor and money but did nothing to enhance the value of the property and was an ordinary repair.

Iowa Supremes Interpret Equine Activity Statute

Baker v. Shields, no. 07-1102 (Iowa June 19, 2009).

Baker was employed as a farmhand and worked for the Shields, father and son. In the course of attempting to move cattle, Baker was thrown from a horse. The third time he attempted to ride the horse he sustained a serious leg fracture and sued the Shields, father and son.

The Shields filed for summary judgment based on the immunity provisions of Iowa Code section 673.2 which provides that the owner of a domesticated animal is not liable for injuries sustained by a participant in the activity because of the inherent risks of a domesticated animal activity.

Baker disagreed, arguing that chapter 673 does not apply to the use of horses in traditional farming activities. He also argued that because the Shields did not provide workmen's compensation insurance they were liable anyway under Iowa Code section 87.21.

The district court concluded that the Shields were protected by Iowa Code section 673.2 and that Baker could not rely on section 87.21 because 87.21 only applies to common law defenses, not statutorily created defenses.

The Supreme Court affirmed, noting that the 'manifest intent' of the legislature in enacting the state's equine activity statute was to provide a blanket immunity for a broad range of activities and that traditional farming was within the ambit of the statute.