CHICAGO (AP) — A southern Illinois school district can't sue an architectural firm for building a school on an underground coal mine that later collapsed, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a 7-0 decision, the court ruled that the Gillespie Community school district's claim of "fraudulent misrepresentation" against Wight and Company was barred by a five-year statute of limitations.
In 1998, the Gillespie Community school district began construction plans for new elementary school in Benld, a coal mining town about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis. Engineers noted there was the possibility of mine subsidence, or the collapse of an underground mine, on the campus site, but school officials said in their suit that proper risks never were detailed and proceeded with building.
The new school was built in 2002 on the former mine site, but in 2009, the school's walls began sprouting large cracks, and the floors buckled. The school was closed that spring after it was declared unsafe, displacing hundreds of students until a new school could be built.
The school district filed a suit against the firm in Macoupin County Circuit Court in August 2009.
The circuit court, and later an appellate court, ruled in favor of Wight, noting that because the work was completed in the fall of 2002, the statute of limitations had long since passed. The school district, in turn, argued the lawmakers intended for no statute of limitations to apply to construction-based fraudulent misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment causes of actions.
Justice Robert Thomas, in an affirmation of the lower courts' rulings joined by the other six justices, described the school district's arguments as "premised on the erroneous conclusion that no statute of limitations applied to fraudulent misrepresentations.
"It is the school district, and not the appellate court, that is reading exception, limitations or conditions" into the law that conflict with clearly expressed legislative intent," Thomas wrote.
Rick Verticchio, the lawyer representing the school district, said Friday that Gillespie officials "respectfully disagree with the Supreme Court, and of course we're disappointed because we think they're wrong."
However, he pointed out, a trial is set to begin against Union Pacific Railroad Company in September in Macoupin County circuit court, which the district also sued in 2009 because of its links to the coal company that operated the mine under the school site from the early 1900s to the 1950s.
Construction began on a new school building began in 2011, with students returning for classes this fall. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 cubic yards of concrete slurry were pumped into a mine 350 feet below the site to stabilize it for construction.
The case is Gillespie Community Unit School District No. 7 v. Wight and Company.