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Court: Architecture firm not liable for faulty installation at Dells waterpark

A rendering of the Lost Rios waterpark at the Chula Vista Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals last week dismissed a lawsuit over a faulty installation of a vapor barrier at the waterpark after finding the suit had been filed too late. (Rendering courtesy of Chula Vista Resort)

A Wisconsin architectural firm can’t be held liable for flawed installation work at a Wisconsin Dells water park because of a state statute limiting when claims over faulty jobs can be brought.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals decided last week to uphold a lower court’s ruling dismissing claims that Architectural Design Consultants, of Lake Delton, should be liable for the flawed installation of a vapor barrier during the most recent expansion of the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells. Work on the project, which included the addition of an 80,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, was deemed substantially completed in 2006. About a year later, Chula Vista discovered that the vapor barrier had not been installed according to Architectural Design’s specifications.

Architectural Design Consultants responded by working with the general contractor on the project to have spray-foam insulation installed instead. Chula Vista didn’t file its claim for damages until 2017.

Architectural Design, which was represented by the law firm DeWitt LLP, based its defense almost entirely on the timeline. Wisconsin’s “statute of repose” bars owners and other contracting parties from bringing legal actions over improvements to real property more than a certain number of years after such improvements have been substantially completed. In this case, the limit for the statute of repose was deemed to be 10 years.

The Court of Appeals found that because Chula Vista’s suit came more than a decade after the expansion project on its resort was substantially complete, it ran afoul of the statute of repose. The appellate judges summarily ruled that the lower court had been correct to bar Chula Vista’s claims against Architectural Design.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeals drew on a precedent set in Holy Family Catholic Congregation v. Stubenrauch Assocs., Inc. In that case, the court found that the construction of a church was substantially complete before contractors had to return later on for roof repairs.

Similarly, the court found, work on the Chula Vista project was substantially complete before contractors came back with an alternative for the improperly installed vapor barrier. The court noted that the Chula Vista did not assert that its building could not be used or occupied until a remedy had been found.

Dwight Rabuse, one of the DeWitt lawyers who defended Architectural Design, said, “The Holy Family case was factually very close to our case.”

Although the limit used for the statute of repose in this case was 10 years, current law actually sets it at seven years. The Wisconsin Legislature adopted reduced that window in 2019 among a host of changes to the state’s civil-litigation rules.

Rabuse said the court chose to rely on the longer, less-forgiving 10-year limit in this case because the outcome would have been the same no matter which limit was used.


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