In March, we discussed the importance of pleading common law duties separate and distinct from a builder’s contractual duties in order to preserve tort-based construction defect actions under Michigan law. In its opinion released June 6, 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court recently reinforced but fine-tuned this advice in Loweke v. Ann Arbor Ceiling & Partition Co., L.L.C., 2011 WL 2184294 (Mich. 2011).
The court recognized that under Fultz v. Union Commerce & Assocs., 470 Mich. 460 (2004), Michigan courts had mistakenly created a form of tort immunity against claims raised by noncontracting third parties. This immunity has grossly limited recoveries in both residential and commercial claims, because the policyholder typically contracts with only one entity, either the builder or general contractor, but the subcontracting tortfeasor has been previously ruled by trial courts to be immune due to lack of privity with the homeowner. The Supreme Court commented that Michigan courts had been allowing contract terms to obscure the inquiry as to whether a contracting defendant owed a noncontracting third party any legal duty. Rather, the court explained, any duty owed should be discerned “without regard to the obligations contained within the contract.” The focus of the inquiry is not whether a defendant’s conduct was separate and distinct from the defendant’s contractual obligations but whether a defendant owes any duty at all to a particular plaintiff.
While Loweke will be greeted with sighs of relief by those seeking to advance construction defect claims, the “separate and distinct” analysis is not dead letter. The failure to plead a duty independent of a contractor’s obligations will limit recovery to contractual avenues, to which third parties cannot generally avail themselves. Evaluation of what duties may exist relative the damage suffered, and careful crafting of the Complaint, is critical.
This facet of Michigan law has been dynamic and Cozen O’Connor will keep a watchful eye open for the latest changes.