Bellevue School Dist. No. 405 v. Brazier Const. Co.

Decision Date07 November 1984
Docket NumberNo. 49099-6,49099-6
Citation691 P.2d 178,103 Wn.2d 111
CourtWashington Supreme Court
Parties, 21 Ed. Law Rep. 734 BELLEVUE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 405, a Washington public school district, Appellant, v. BRAZIER CONSTRUCTION CO., a Washington corporation, Defendant, R.F. Barkshire Company, Inc., a Washington corporation; Barkshire Construction Company, a Washington corporation; Victor N. Jones, individually and his marital community; Lloyd J. Lovegren, individually and his marital community; Kenneth C. Helms, individually and his marital community; Gayne L. Jones, individually and his marital community; the partnership of Jones, Lovegren, Helms & Jones, Architects; Charles E. Kitchin, individually and his marital community; and General Insurance Company of America, a Washington corporation, Respondents.

Foster, Pepper & Riviera, Marco Magnano, Jr., David Anderson, John Pierce, Seattle, for appellant.

Basil Badley, Edward Mueller, William T. Robinson, Brian McEachron, Seattle, amicus curiae for respondents.

Casey, Pruzan & Kovarik, Phillip Hutchison, Karr, Tuttle, Koch, Campbell, Mawer & Morrow, Mary Ellen Hanley, Robert Piper, Philip Talmadge, Anthony Winchester, Seattle, Keller, Jacobson, Hole, Jackson & Snodgrass, Martin Snodgrass, Bellevue, Oles, Morrison, Rinker, Stanislaw & Ashbaugh, Sam E. Baker, Jr., Seattle, for respondent R.F. Barkshire Const.

Donald Harrison, Seattle, for respondent General Ins. Co.

DORE, Justice.

In our first consideration of Bellevue Sch. Dist. 405 v. Brazier Constr. Co., 100 Wash.2d 776, 675 P.2d 232 (1984), we reversed the summary judgment of the trial court and remanded for trial. Subsequently a rehearing was granted and a reargument before this court ensued. We reaffirm our earlier holding, but take this opportunity to also respond to issues raised on reconsideration.

Plaintiff Bellevue School District filed this action for breach of construction contracts in connection with the construction from 1963 to 1965 of Newport High School. The complaint alleged design and construction defects generally relating to sufficiency of structural support in the building walls and failure to adequately secure the roofs of the buildings to the walls.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff's claim was barred by RCW 4.16.310, 1 which limits actions based on construction contracts to those which accrue within 6 years of substantial completion of construction. The Superior Court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment of dismissal and made the following findings:

2. [The school district's] complaint and the claims and causes of action asserted therein against moving defendants are barred by RCW 4.16.300-.310.

3. The plaintiff school district is a municipal corporation.

4. Plaintiff did not bring this action for the benefit of the state.

5. There is no rational distinction between an action of this character initiated by a school district and one initiated by a private party under similar circumstances; and there is thus no reason to apply a different time within which the School District must bring its action.

6. Application of RCW 4.16.160 to permit an action by a school district which would otherwise be barred by RCW 4.16.300-.310 is unconstitutional under the equal protection clauses of the State and the Federal Constitutions.

We reverse. This action, brought by the Bellevue School District on behalf of the State, cannot be subject to the running of any limitation period, and equal protection analysis has no applicability where the State, in its sovereign capacity, has not waived its immunity with respect to limitation periods.

State Immunity from Limitation Periods

The State, acting in its sovereign capacity, is immune from the application of limitation periods to actions brought for the benefit of the State. Tacoma v. Hyster Co., 93 Wash.2d 815, 821, 613 P.2d 784 (1980). This immunity from operation of statutes of limitation has existed as an element of the common law from a very early period. In United States v. Thompson, 98 U.S. (8 Otto) 486, 489-90, 25 L.Ed. 194 (1878), we find the following examination of the subject:

The common law fixed no time as to the bringing of actions. Limitations derive their authority from statutes. The king was held never to be included, unless expressly named. No laches was imputable to him. These exemptions were founded upon considerations of public policy. It was deemed important that, while the sovereign was engrossed by the cares and duties of his office, the public should not suffer by the negligence of his servants. "In a representative government, where the people do not and cannot act in a body, where their power is delegated to others, and must of necessity be exercised by them, if exercised at all, the reason for applying these principles is equally cogent."

When the colonies achieved their independence, each one took these prerogatives, which had belonged to the crown; and when the national Constitution was adopted, they were imparted to the new government as incidents of the sovereignty thus created. It is an exception equally applicable to all governments.

This common law principle has been codified by the Legislature in RCW 4.16.160:

The limitations prescribed in this chapter shall apply to actions brought in the name or for the benefit of any county or other municipality or quasimunicipality of the state, in the same manner as to actions brought by private parties: Provided, That there shall be no limitation to actions brought in the name or for the benefit of the state, and no claim of right predicated upon the lapse of time shall ever be asserted against the state ...

(Italics ours.) This codification has existed without exception for over 100 years in this state. See Laws of 1955, ch. 43, § 2, p. 334; Laws of 1903, ch. 24, § 1, p. 26; Laws of 1873, §§ 34, 35, p. 10; Laws of 1869, §§ 34, 35, p. 10; Laws of 1854, § 9, p. 364; See also Rem.Rev.Stat., § 167.

It is well settled that school districts act on behalf of the State when they build and maintain school buildings. See, e.g., Seattle Sch. Dist. 1 v. State, 90 Wash.2d 476, 585 P.2d 71 (1978); State ex rel. Dupont-Fort Lewis Sch. Dist. 7 v. Bruno, 62 Wash.2d 790, 384 P.2d 608 (1963); Edmonds Sch. Dist. 15 v. Mountlake Terrace, 77 Wash.2d 609, 465 P.2d 177 (1970). Accord, Unified Sch. Dist. 490 v. Celotex Corp., 6 Kan.App.2d 346, 629 P.2d 196 (1981); Dunn v. W.F. Jameson & Sons, Inc., 569 S.W.2d 799 (Tenn.1978). Const. art. 9, § 1 imposes upon the State the paramount duty of making adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Seattle Sch. Dist., 90 Wash.2d at 512, 585 P.2d 71; State ex rel. Dupont, 62 Wash.2d at 795, 384 P.2d 608.

Education is one of the paramount duties of the state. The duty and power to educate the people are not only inherent qualities of sovereignty but are expressly made an attribute of sovereignty in the state of Washington by the state constitution. Const. art. 9, §§ 1, 2. The state exercises its sovereign powers and fulfills its duties of providing education largely by means of a public school system under the direction and administration of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Board of Education, school districts and county school boards.

School districts are, in law, municipal corporations with direct authority to establish, maintain and operate public schools and to erect and maintain buildings for that and allied purposes. RCW 28.58. In essence, a school district is a corporate arm of the state established as a means of carrying out the state's constitutional duties (RCW 28.57.135) and exercising the sovereign's powers in providing education. The state has thus made the local school district its corporate agency for the administration of a constitutionally required system of free public education.

Edmonds Sch. Dist. 15, 77 Wash.2d at 611-12, 465 P.2d 177.

The present action, brought by the Bellevue School District on behalf of the State, cannot be subjected to the running of any limitation period. This principle is well summarized by the Kansas court in Unified Sch. Dist. v. Celotex Corp., supra 6 Kan.App.2d at 351, 629 P.2d 196:

Statutes of limitation do not run against the state when the action arises out of the performance of a governmental function. State ex rel. Schneider v. McAfee, 2 Kan.App.2d 274, 275, 578 P.2d 281, rev. denied 225 Kan. 845 (1978); K.S.A. 60-521. The construction of a school building is incidental to and a part of the state's overall duty to provide public education for the citizens of the state. 2 Kan.App.2d at 276. The operation of a high school building by a school board is a governmental function. See Smith v. Board of Education, 204 Kan. 580, 584, 464 P.2d 571 (1970). Celotex argues that the reasoning behind Gorrell v. City of Parsons, 223 Kan. 645, 576 P.2d 616 (1978), should work to overrule decisions such as State ex rel. Schneider v. McAfee that have governmental immunity as their basis.... In any event, Gorrell and Thome v. City of Newton, 229 Kan. 375, 624 P.2d 454 (1981), each held a municipality subject to suit for certain tortious acts committed during the performance of a government function but their reasoning does not extend to imposition of time limitations upon public bodies for the institution of actions.

The foregoing aptly demonstrates that the Bellevue School District's claims are not properly barred by any statutory limitation period.

Nonclaim Statutes

The defendants contend that even if the School District's action is within the confines of RCW 4.16.160, application of RCW 4.16.160 does not remove the School District's action from operation of RCW 4.16.310 because RCW 4.16.310 is not a statute of limitations but a "nonclaim statute". We disagree.

A judicially created exception to the rule of State immunity from operation of limitation periods is found in the unique nature of nonclaim statutes...

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