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N.H. Supreme Court hears arguments in Reps. Hall for State House bicentennial 

Monitor staff
Published: 6/4/2019 5:09:08 PM

Architects once marveled that the State House had “stood the stress of years without collapsing entirely.” On Tuesday, that 200-year-old building housed arguments to determine how long architects are on the hook for damages related to defective property improvements under New Hampshire State Law.

The N.H. Supreme Court celebrated the building’s bicentennial this week by hearing oral arguments in Representatives Hall. The court first heard arguments there in 1824, then moved into the Senate Chamber across the hall in 1875, and eventually across the street into its own building in 1895.

The move out of the State House was well timed. A 1910 renovation of the building “revealed a condition of affairs in the way of shoddy construction that, had they been known, would have caused the instant condemnation of the entire building,” according to Edward F. Miner’s book “Dedication of the Remodeled State House.” “Those who were permitted to study conditions marveled that no fatalities had attended its occupancy,” added Miner.

Fortunately, the State House is secure now, so justices could safely think about how long modern architects are financially responsible for injuries as a result of flawed construction.

The case heard Tuesday arose when a man sued a Hanover property owner after being injured in a fall on the owner’s land. The case sought to answer whether the architects involved in renovations were still liable even though the statute of repose for “economic loss” had passed.

“This really is scintillating stuff, isn’t it,” said retired Supreme Court Justice Carol Ann Conboy, who moderated the event.

The arguments revolved around a two-word phrase: “economic loss.” The statue in question puts an eight-year limit on architectural firms’ responsibility to cover financial loss related to defective work, but the two sides involved didn’t agree on what legislators meant when they wrote “economic loss.”

“Statutes are made by the Legislature, and sometimes there’s some ambiguity,” said Conboy, drawing understanding laughter from a crowd largely consisting of legislators and staffers.

The architectural firms’ lawyers argued that “economic loss” includes money lost in lawsuits.

“It’s a broad term, but it’s not a vague term,” argued Bill Staar, who represented one of the firms. “Economic loss means my wallet and my purse are lighter than they were before.”

“You would be putting words in the law, which you can’t do,” responded Andrew Dunn, who represented the property owner, pointing out that the current statute left out language regarding indemnity found in earlier statues.

“One would assume the legislators knew what they were doing when they took the words out,” said Chief Justice Robert Lynn, eliciting laughs in the middle of the hearing while sitting in the Speaker of the House’s chair.

The legislators seemed to learn their lesson.

“What this session has done is reinforce the need for the Legislature to be clear in its intent when it passes law,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, who chaired the State House bicentennial commission.

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