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Lawsuit lingers long after project completion

Paul Snyder
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Attorneys for a contractor and subcontractor found negligent in a personal injury case in River Falls have until Tuesday to request a reversal of a Pierce County jury’s verdict.

The decision likely will be made this week, said Edmund Manydeeds III, and the early indication is that the fight will continue.

“This is by no means finished yet,” said Manydeeds, an attorney with Richie, Guettinger & Manydeeds SC, Eau Claire, who is representing Eau Claire-based B & B Electric Inc. “We’re still very early on in this process.”

A Pierce County jury last month awarded River Falls High School teacher Ryan Bishop more than $350,000 as compensation for knee and back injuries he sustained when he tripped over a jump-rope rack in the school’s storage room.

According to Bishop’s attorney, Dean Rohde, the teacher was in a physical education storage room in October 2004 repairing hockey sticks when, after about 15 minutes, the lights went off. Because the lights were activated by motion sensors, Bishop stood up and started moving but the movement did not trigger the sensors, Rohde said. He said Bishop started feeling his way toward the room’s light switch and tripped over the rack, landing on the concrete floor.

Waupun-based Westra Construction Inc., which shut down in 2005, was the general contractor for the new high school and finished building it in 2001. B & B installed the sensors that activated the lights in the room.

Westra can still be held financially liable through its insurance company, Madison-based WEA Insurance Corp. Steven Schlitz, an attorney with Johnson & Schlitz SC, Eau Claire, who is representing Westra, declined to comment for this story.

Although Westra and B & B finished their work and turned the building over to the district by early 2002, Manydeeds said, the jury still found both parties negligent.

“(The accident) was after the 12-month warranty period had gone by, and no one told us of any problems or difficulties,” he said. “There was a punch list, and there were final walkthroughs. There were never any complaints.”

Rohde said Bishop reported the problem to school officials before the accident took place. While Manydeeds said B & B was never contacted, Rohde said that is part of the problem.

“The issue here is whether the contractor and subcontractor should have been in better contact to begin with,” Rohde said. “The sensors were installed wrong. They weren’t done according to final drawings. Can you do something wrong and, after the warranty period, just walk away and wipe your hands?”

The suit could not be brought against the school alone, Manydeeds said, because the only legal remedy Bishop had against the school was worker’s compensation benefits.

The jury found the school partially negligent in the case but did not recommend a financial penalty.

Brian Mullins, a construction attorney with Madison-based Axley Brynelson LLP, said Wisconsin does not have a reputation for juries repeatedly siding with plaintiffs, but juries can be swayed by the presentation of facts.

“It certainly is fair to ask: How can a contractor be responsible years later?” he said. “But there are several protective measures in place for that kind of judgment, too.

A defendant, Mullins said, can ask a judge to overrule a jury’s verdict or appeal the case. He said the state also has a statute of repose, which limits when a lawsuit can be filed against a contractor after a project is completed.

The limit is 10 years, but if the River Falls judgment holds, Mullins said, contractors should not begin a 10-year worrying period after finishing a project.

“This kind of case does not come up that often at all,” he said. “And if there is a problem with the jury’s ruling, in most cases, it gets corrected.”

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