On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County.
Crane, Milmed and King. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, J.A.D.
On December 16, 1975 a fire occurred in the auditorium of Wayne Hills High School, a facility operated by plaintiff-appellant Board of Education of Wayne Township. Property damage in the alleged amount of $985,230.46 resulted. This suit was filed on May 23, 1978 seeking damages against various parties who allegedly contributed to the loss by their negligence or defective workmanship during the design, manufacture or construction stages relevant to the installation of the dimmer panel for the auditorium stage completed in 1966.
This appeal is taken from a summary judgment in favor of Walter J. Kidde & Co., Inc. (Kidde), defendant-respondent. The claim of liability against Kidde was premised on its alleged ownership and control of a subsidiary, Century Lighting, Inc. (Century), which allegedly participated in the design and manufacture of the dimmer panel and its electrical components. Plaintiff's purported expert, electrical engineer R.W. Persons, had submitted reports implicating both the design of the dimmer panel and the method of manufacture as causative of the fire.
For the purpose of the summary judgment only, Kidde stipulated that it "designed, manufactured and sold the dimmer
panel" involved in the fire. The trial judge concluded that the dimmer panel, a unit approximately 2' X 7' X 13', weighing between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds and wired to operate the diverse stage systems and the projection room of the new auditorium, was an "improvement to real estate" within the applicable statute of repose, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1.*fn1 The trial judge was correct in this ruling. The dimmer panel was an integral part of the permanent electrical system of the auditorium and was "required for the structure to actually function as intended." Brown v. Jersey Central Power & Light Co. , 163 N.J. Super. 179, 195 (App.Div.1978), certif. den. 79 N.J. 489 (1979).
Alternately, plaintiff contends that Kidde was a manufacturer only and did not participate in the design stage. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1 affords the ten-year time-bar from date of completion of performance or furnishing of services to any persons "performing or furnishing the design, planning, supervision of construction or construction of such improvement to real property." The history and purpose of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1 was explored carefully by Justice Mountain in Rosenberg v. North Bergen Tp. , 61 N.J. 190 (1972), a case in which the statute was held applicable to a road-paving contractor. The statute was clearly
a legislative response to the judicial adoption of the so-called "discovery" rule and abrogation of the so-called "completed and accepted" rule to tort claims arising from construction of improvements to real estate. Id. at 196 197. With respect to the scope of the statutorily protected class the Supreme Court commented:
Viewed in this context the statute should be given a broader sweep than was accorded to it by the Appellate Division. If the condition to which the Legislature addressed itself was this extension of potential liability, then there seems no reason not to include within the favor of the statute all to whom this condition may adhere whether they be planners and builders of structures, roads, playing fields or aught else that by broad definition can be deemed "an improvement to real property." We prefer to read the statute, consonant with what we thus judge to have been the legislative intent, as applying to all who can, by a sensible reading of the words of the act, be brought within its ambit. We therefore conclude that the statute does apply to the facts of this case. [ Id. at 198]
For convenience we have referred to the beneficiaries of this legislation as architects and building contractors. But the favored class is much larger. It includes "any person performing or furnishing the design, planning, supervision of construction or construction of such improvement to real property." We do not attempt at this time to enumerate all of the classes of persons coming within this statutory group. These might include, as examples only, the designer of a sewage plant for a development complex, a landscape gardener or a well driller. We can find here no such ...