Facing mounting lawsuits over its storm-scattered Pensacola Bay Bridge construction barges, Skanska USA Southeast has asked a federal court to determine whether maritime law limits the company’s liability for damages resulting from the incident.
Twenty-seven barges, part of a 55-vessel fleet being used to construct a parallel structure to an existing three-mile crossing between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, broke loose from their moorings on Sept. 15 as Hurricane Sally neared the Gulf coast with sustained winds in excess of 100 mph. At least four of the vessels struck and severely damaged the year-old concrete bridge, forcing its immediate closure to traffic. Most of the barges eventually ran aground at various locations around the Pensacola area.
Since then, local businesses and property owners have filed at least 70 state court lawsuits against Skanska, each claiming economic losses as a result of the bridge closure. The company is working with the Florida Dept. of Transportation to expedite repairs, with a target completion date of March 2021. On Dec. 10, FDOT reported that contractors were “focusing on pile-driving operations and setting beams” for the bridge’s reconstruction. Skanska is also reportedly paying the agency a daily penalty of $35,000 during the closure.
Skanska’s five federal district court filings, each for a separate vessel, contend that the company took “reasonable steps” to secure the barges in advance of the storm, but that “unforeseeable and extreme winds, waves and storm surge” caused them to break away from their moorings.
Citing the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act, which applies to seagoing vessels as well as those used “on lakes or rivers or in inland navigation,” Skanska asserts that it should be exonerated from liability, as the alleged economic losses occurred without its “privity or knowledge.”
In previous public statements, Skanska said its preparations were based on 36-hour forecasts calling for Hurricane Sally to make landfall as a tropical storm approximately 200 miles west of Pensacola Bay. A significant eastward track shift and intensification in the final hours of the storm’s approach was detected too late to take action, the contractor said. Sally eventually came ashore near Gulf Shoals, Ala., approximately 30 miles west of the project site.
Alternatively, Skanska “without admitting but affirmatively denying all liability” asks the federal court to apply another facet of the law that would cap the company’s liability to each barge’s approximate value, which range in the filings from $125,000 to $550,000, the later for a vessel described as 120-ft long, 55-ft wide and with a draft of seven feet. Skanska has also posted a separate bond for each vessel as security for potential liability.