By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A jury Monday held a Wellington company liable for potentially millions of dollars in damages suffered by thousands of Broward businesses forced to shut down two years ago after workers cracked open a Fort Lauderdale water main.
A second trial to determine how much Florida Communications Concepts Inc. (FCC) should have to pay in damages will be held next year.
The six-member jury held FCC 90 percent responsible for the debacle, and Homestead’s Geo & Yus, FCC’s agent whose workers actually punctured the water main, eight percent responsible. Legally, FCC is responsible for 98 percent of the damages, according to plaintiffs’ attorney William Scherer.
Fort Lauderdale was held two percent responsible but will bear no financial burden because sovereign immunity kept it from being named as a defendant. In fact, earlier this year the city recouped nearly $500,000 of its costs by settling its lawsuit against the same defendants.
The commercial defendants, including FPL, whose underground drilling project led to the mess, previously settled the class-action case out of court. The amounts they paid have not been disclosed.
Ironically, the jury found that FPL was not negligent. Another settled defendant, Infratech, was also found blameless by the jury.
HUGE COSTS OF WATER SHUTDOWN
Total losses to area businesses, ranging in size from big companies like car retailer AutoNation attnd Marriott Harbor Beach Resort to local restaurants like Phat Boy Sushi, were in excess of $100 million, Scherer said. (Disclosure: Scherer is a financial supporter of Florida Bulldog.)
For example, Scherer said, Marriott Harbor Beach had to relocate 600 guests for one day – at a cost of $350,000 – while still incurring regular costs.
In all, Scherer and co-counsels Adam Moskowitz and Cristina Pierson represented 9,200 area businesses that say they were damaged financially by the blunder.
The lead court-certified class action plaintiffs include The Las Olas Company, owner of the Riverside Hotel; The Restaurant People, owners of YOLO, Boatyard, Casablanca and a half dozen other well-known restaurants; Lauderdale Beach Association, and DiPietro Partners law firm.
The July 17, 2019 mishap occurred at Fort Lauderdale’s Executive Airport and put about 220,000 residents and businesses in seven cities and Port Everglades under boil water orders for three days. Those customers are all served by Fort Lauderdale’s Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant.
According to the 31-page negligence complaint, workers installing conduit for FPL electrical lines were “blindly” boring underground using a process called “horizontal directional drilling” when they accidentally punched a six-inch hole in a 42-inch concrete water main. The 60-year-old pipe moves raw drinking water from the city’s Prospect Wellfield just west of the airport to the Fiveash plant.
City workers plugged the hole about four hours later using a branch cut from a nearby tree. The exact location of the break was 2417 NW 55th Court, just off the airport’s runways.
A RISKY BUSINESS
FCC was a subcontractor of a Georgia company called Infratech that had a contract to provide FPL cable rehab services. FCC was to provide placement of underground distribution facilities for FPL using directional drilling – a trenchless technology in which a drill bores underground to create an unexposed path through which cable can be pulled.
One of FCC’s jobs was to use a free, statewide utility service called Sunshine 811 to determine whether there were underground utilities it had to avoid while excavating for FPL. But according to the complaint, the location it identified was “different than the location where the work was to actually be performed.” Likewise, FPL never checked to make sure the information was accurate.
Further, FCC didn’t disclose that inherently risky underground directional drilling would be used, did not obtain required permits and took no “necessary steps to supervise or ensure that the operators of the drill were licensed or competent,” the complaint says.
In its defense, FCC and its attorney, Gary L. Brown, sought to blame Fort Lauderdale, arguing that the real damages in the case were the result of the city’s poor emergency response. The jury only partially agreed.
The week-long trial was presided over by Judge Jeffrey Levenson.
According to Scherer, the lawsuit has had a “great effect” outside the courthouse.
“The city now has different procedures in place that are better protection for the system, and FPL has agreed to change their procedures, too, to safeguard against the jacklegs and their false representations,” Scherer said.