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Andrade: Skanska ruling just the beginning

pensacola_bay_bridge_repair_1.jpg
Florida Department of Transportation

A federal court judge last week found that Skanska USA was negligent in preparing their construction barges for Hurricane Sally. But that’s not close to being the final word on the case.

The ruling was both limited and very important. In July, a judge ruled that Skanska was operating under maritime law which kept the case in federal court and offered the company some protections from certain liability. This new ruling is seen as a win for the plaintiffs, albeit a very preliminary one.

“It doesn’t give anybody money. It doesn’t award anybody damages" said Alex Andrade, the Florida State Representative for District Two where the Three Mile Bridge is located. He also works at a law firm that is involved in some of the ongoing liability cases. "Essentially what the court said was ‘because we find that you were negligent in your operation of those barges, you don’t get to enjoy the protections from liability that you would have otherwise enjoyed’. ”

Skanska’s barges broke loose from the Three Mile Bridge construction site during the hurricane in 2020, severely damaging the bridge and forcing it to close for 9 months. Andrade says last week’s ruling was a first step and doesn’t settle a lot of remaining questions in the case. “There’s a big question about whether or not residents whose property did not suffer a direct impact from a barge can still claim and receive damages from Skanska. You know if you’re a business, if you’re a restaurant or hotel at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge in Gulf Breeze, or if you’re a home owner who had to drive 5 hours to get to get to work on a commute that would have otherwise taken 20 minutes, there’s a huge question about whether or not you’ll be able to recoup damages.”

That question arises from a part of maritime law called the Robin’s Dry Dock rule, named after a 1927 Supreme Court ruling which has been affirmed within the last decade. To boil it down to a single sentence, under maritime law a plaintiff must suffer physical damage to some property in which the plaintiff has a proprietary interest or they cannot collect damages. Andrade says while that may have made sense in the 1820s, the 2020s are a very different place.

“Common sense today is different than common sense 200 years ago when everybody had to use a vessel to engage in any kind of commerce, back when we were using canals to get goods to and from different cities. It was a completely different framework. Today, there shouldn’t be any distinction between whether a barge broke a bridge or a dump-truck broke a bridge, and I think that we’ll hopefully have some circuit court judges at the state level who are willing to make that distinction today.”

With this ruling, lawsuits against Skanska involving over 900 people impacted by the closure of the 3 Mile Bridge can now go forward in state court.

In a statement, Skanska said "We are extremely disappointed by the district court ruling, as we believe it is not supported by the evidence or testimony presented at trial". The statement said Skanska will continue to pursue all legal options, which could include appealing the decision.