A lawsuit alleging structural design errors during construction of the National WWII Museum’s $66.5 million hotel and conference center has been scheduled for a federal  jury trial next spring. It was rescheduled after a judge dismissed one engineer’s claim that he should be exempt from the suit and because of the pandemic.

World War II Theatre Inc., the museum’s nonprofit arm building hotel and conference center in New Orleans, filed the suit in April 2019. In addition to naming DeSimone Consulting Engineering Group as a defendant, the lawsuit also names William O’Donnell, a partner and managing principal in DeSimone's Miami office who is a licensed engineer in Louisiana and was the firm's representative on the project. 

In the suit, the plaintiff claims DeSimone and O’Donnell were “grossly negligent” in designing the project, and that their errors resulted in more than $1 million in damages related to repair costs and delays. The 230-room Higgins Hotel and Conference Center downtown opened late last year.

In February, O’Donnell petitioned the court for a summary judgment, claiming a contract provision precludes the nonprofit from taking legal action against him and that he could not be held personally liable for actions he performed on DeSimone’s behalf. U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier denied the request on April 15, citing a civil code that would nullify that provision if “underlying allegations and facts” show the party acted “intentionally or with gross negligence.”

In his decision, Barbier wrote that O’Donnell did not refute the non-profit's evidence alleging his own gross negligence including that the engineer oversaw the project’s structural design drawings. Evidence included multiple overstressed beams and original design calculations that did not factor in the weight of structure’s concrete masonry walls. Additionally, Robert Farnsworth, senior vice president and project manager for the National WWII Museum said he attended a meeting in which O’Donnell “acknowledged the severity of the engineering errors, indicated that he had never before seen errors of this magnitude,” and specified that the nonprofit would be reimbursed for repair costs.

An attorney for O’Donnell and DeSimone could not be reached for comment.

After the initial filing in state court in the spring, the parties in the suit were unable to reach a settlement, and the case was moved to federal court. The trial, originally set to begin in August, has been moved to April 26 through May 7, 2021, for reasons related to the pandemic and other scheduling conflicts.

The Higgins Hotel opened after undergoing what project officials, including lead contractor Palmisano LLC, described as extensive repairs on numerous beams, columns and the foundation.

The lawsuit claims some of the steel beams DeSimone designed were undersized and insufficient to bear the loads of the eight-story building, and that structural design issues resulted in two months of delays and mitigations.

“While in some cases new beams and columns were added, the majority of the repairs involved adding additional steel to existing beams to increase their structural capacity. The repairs were carefully planned to ensure that the additional structural members did not impact the architectural or interior design of the project,” CEO Wes Palmisano told ENR in September 2019.

According to the lawsuit, structural concerns about the hotel surfaced as early as April 2018, when contractor Palmisano notified the museum that some of the structural steel beams it installed on the building’s second and third floors appeared to be sagging. After DeSimone confirmed that the beams it had designed were undersized, Palmisano took remediation steps that included refabricating additional steel and reinforcing, removing and replacing beams.

In August 2018, Palmisano notified the museum it had discovered another undersized beam that was unable to support a concrete block wall load. Later that month, DeSimone ordered Palmisano to stop work on the concrete wall so it could address the issue, the complaint says.

The lawsuit claims that DeSimone took no further action to review the design’s structural integrity, including the foundation, and that the museum had to cover costs of $433,000 for Palmisano to keep working on the building.

In mitigating the issue, the engineer conducted a review of the entire structural design, and the project team brought on an independent engineer to peer review the structure, Palmisano said. According to the suit, DeSimone discovered more than 27 locations with undersized beams, and a third-party consultant confirmed those findings.

Representatives of both the museum and Palmisano LLC said last fall that the hotel’s structural integrity had been fully restored. Repairs were expedited and completed by December 2018. “There are no concerns about the structural integrity of the completed project,” Palmisano said.