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Law Firm Exploring Lawsuit for Runaway Barges

Stefany Gagne/Courtesy Photo

Just days after a number of construction barges broke loose during Hurricane Sally in Pensacola, at least one local law firm is mulling a possible lawsuit against their owner.

When Sally made landfall as a Category-2 storm, at least 20 barges escaped their moorings, according to imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The barges are owned by Skanska USA, which is overseeing construction of the new Three Mile Bridge. The vessels caused damage to that span, and ran aground elsewhere, damaging private shoreline property.

“Those facts alone, as a lawyer, make you want to look and see if there’s something that could have been done differently, that we should look into,” Attorney Joe Zarzaur said. “And so that was enough for me to want to look into this situation, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Zarzaur’s law firm is studying the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Skanska. Around 100 people have contacted his office. The course of action, he says, will be the most viable moving forward.

“There’s two types of cases; there’s the case where a barge accidentally hits property and causes a physical impact with their real estate,” said Zarzaur. “And then there’s the cases where people are having to spend more money – either their business are affected by this, but they did not have physical contact with any of the work platforms.”

Credit Zarzaur Law Firm
Attorney Joe Zarzaur.

One of the first decisions to be made – if any lawsuit is to go forward – is whether or not it will be class-action or individual cases. The standard, Zarzaur says, involves proving there was actual impact on the property, causing damages, and proving negligence was involved in the mooring of the vessels. 

“The problem with all the other economic loss claims is that there is no, necessarily, recognizable tort in maritime law for pure economic loss without physical impact,” said Zarzaur. “And then the question is, ‘Does maritime law apply to this? Is this work platform a vessel?’”

Zarzaur contends if a work platform lacks a means of self-propulsion or steering, and it’s not typically used to carry passengers, it’s not a vessel but instead a work platform.

“If the work platform is not a vessel, maritime law doesn’t necessarily apply,” Zarzaur says. “Which means if you can find any statute in the state or in the federal system that would apply to this situation and would allow for economic losses to be recovered, that would be the most viable option.”

Any litigation remains down the road, according to Zarzaur, since they’ve just begun their investigation.

“What I’m telling everybody that’s contacting our firm, is if you’re calling just about a pure economic loss, I’m cautioning everybody – there may not be a case,” said Zarzaur. “If there is, we’re going to find it; if we find one, we’re going to pursue it. If we pursue it, I can guarantee you it’s going to be a fight because it’s going to be an extremely expensive proposition for [Skanska].”

Skanska USA did not return calls seeking an interview, but in a written statement, the company said it made "all appropriate preparations" based on the best information available before the storm.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Doug Broxson – after meeting with Department of Transportation officials -- told the Pensacola News Journal it will take 30-60 days to repair damage caused by the barge.