Village of Sturtevant v. STS Consultants, Ltd.
2010 Wisc. App. LEXIS 433 (Wis. Ct. App. June 9, 2010)

The Court of Appeals of Wisconsin recently considered whether a design professional could maintain a claim for contribution against a subcontractor on the basis that the subcontractor had a duty to advise that the design was not suited for the intended application. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s dismissal of such claims on the basis that the subcontractor had no design or construction responsibility and therefore could not be a joint tortfeasor.

The Village of Sturtevant (the “Owner”) retained STS Consultants to performed design services in connection with the construction of a passenger rail station (the “Project”). STS retained Partners in Design (collectively with STS, the “Design Team”) to provide architectural services. Schindler Elevator Corporation (“Schindler”) was a subcontractor who manufactured two elevators for the Project.

Following installation of the elevators, there were numerous weather-related malfunctions. As a result, the Owner filed suit against the Design Team alleging breach of contract and negligence related to the defective design and construction of the elevators. The Design Team joined Schindler in the action seeking contribution. The Design Team alleged that Schindler’s post-construction comments that the design was not suited for outdoor use was indicative that Schindler knew at the time of the Project that the design was inappropriate and that Schindler had a duty to bring it to the Design Team’s attention at that time.

Schindler filed a motion for summary judgment with respect to the contribution claim arguing that it was in no way involved in the design or construction of the Project or the creation of the elevator specifications. Schindler also pointed out that the Design Team consulted with Otis Elevators regarding the elevator specifications and that Schindler manufactured the elevators in accordance with those approved specifications.

The lower court agreed with Schindler’s position and granted summary judgment in its favor. The lower court opined that in the absence of Schindler’s involvement in design or construction and in the absence of a claim of negligence by the Owner against Schindler, Schindler was not a joint tortfeasor and could not owe contribution to the Design Team.

The Design Team appealed the lower court’s decision arguing that whether Schindler had a duty of ordinary care was a question for a jury. The Design Team further argued that weather-related issues were foreseeable and therefore Schindler had a duty to exercise reasonable care by reviewing the Project plans and opining on whether the elevators were suitable for the intended outside use. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Design Team and upheld the lower court’s ruling. The Court of Appeals opined that if all facts are undisputed (as was the case here), the question of whether a duty exists is one of law, not fact. Schindler’s sole role in the Project was to supply the elevators as specified by others and that role did not create a duty for Schindler to critique the specifications.

The Court of Appeals also opined that a contribution claim requires a finding that (a) the parties are joint tortfeasors, (b) the parties have common liability to the plaintiff, and (c) one party has born an unequal portion of the common liability. Because Schindler was not involved in the design of the elevators and the Design Team had its own elevator consultant who could have opined on the suitability of the elevators, the Court found that Schindler was not a joint tortfeasor.

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