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Logo Icon Clear and Present Defect vs. Hidden and Dangerous: The Patent Defect Shield

In 1993, Santa Clarita County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) concluded construction at the rail station located at 4th Street and Hill Street in Los Angeles. In 2011, Jose Madrigal fell on a stairwell at the station, sustained injuries, and sued MTA. MTA cross-complained against, inter alia, the design professional, Delon Hampton & Associates, Chartered (DHA). DHA demurred to the first amended cross-complaint based on Code of Civil Procedure section 337.1., which contains a four-year limitations period for patent defects. The trial court overruled the demurrer. Hampton filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the Court granted after finding that the defects alleged were patent and therefore, section 337.1. bars an action against Hampton based upon those patent defects. (Delon Hampton & Associates, Chartered v. Superior Court (2014) 227 Cal. App. 4th 250) (“Hampton”).

In reaching its decision, the Court underscored the purpose of the statute of limitations in section 337.1, which is “to provide a final point of termination, to protect some groups from extended liability.” (Sevilla v. Steams-Roger, Inc. (1980) 101 Cal. App. 3d 608, 611.) Amongst the groups protected are those who provide design services. Specifically, section 337.1.(a) states, in pertinent part, “Except as otherwise provided in this section, no action shall be brought to recover damages from any person performing or furnishing the design, specifications, surveying, planning, supervision or observation of construction or construction of an improvement to real property more than four years after the completion of such improvement for any of the following...(3) Injury to the person or for wrongful death arising out of any such patent deficiency.”

“A ‘patent deficiency’ means a deficiency which is apparent by reasonable inspection.’” (Hampton, supra, 227 Cal. App. 4th at 255, citing section 337.1, subd. (e); quoting Tomko Woll Group Architects, Inc. v. Superior Court (1996) 46 Cal. App. 4th 1326, 1336.) In California, courts have found the following defects patent:

  • improperly designed heating and air conditioning system that causes uncontrollable temperature fluctuations;
  • absence of a fence around a swimming pool;
  • raised paving stones on a patio;
  • defects involving stairs and guardrails; and
  • water pooling on a landing.

And, now under Hampton, if a banister of a stair well is too low or the stair well is too narrow, these will be deemed patent defects. “The height of [a] banister and the width of a [a] stair well are not hidden. They are open and apparent defects, and the danger of ascending or descending stairs is a matter of common experience.” Therefore, the four-year statute applies.

The take away? When representing “any person performing or furnishing the design, specifications, surveying, planning, supervision or observation of construction or construction of an improvment to real property”, do not forget to examine the allegations to determine if any of the claims, or as in Hampton entire complaints, may be eliminated because of patent defects. (Code of Civ, Proc., section 337.1. (a).) Defenses, may, too, be patently obvious.