Damage caused by runaway barges during Hurricane Sally – and what to do about it – will be discussed at a pair of forums this weekend.
About 30 construction barges owned by Skanska USA broke loose from the new Three Mile Bridge site during the storm, not only damaging the bridge but also private property when 22 of them washed ashore or struck other vessels.
“[We] want to have an opportunity to explain and kind of bring folks up to speed on where the case is,” said Plaintiff attorney Sam Geisler, with the Pensacola law firm Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz. “Some of the elements of the case right now are crossing into what Skanska wants.”
As the number of lawsuits increased, Skanska began seeking exoneration, along with a “limitation action” – that is, trying to move the case to federal court, in hopes of limiting possible damages. Despite the lion’s share of the damages involving property on dry land, Skanska is arguing that this is a maritime case.
“We do not believe that for various reasons,” Geisler said. “Not the least of which is building a bridge, a terrestrial bridge, right across [Pensacola] Bay. There is a deadline coming up to file a claim into Skanska’s limitation action, which is May 3.”
The forums – which are open to the public – are Saturday at 11 a.m. at Peg Leg Pete’s at Pensacola Beach, and 1 p.m. Sunday at The Fish House in downtown Pensacola. Geisler and other attorneys will review Skanska’s claims process, update the litigation events, and what the community can do to help.
“First and foremost, we’re there to provide information and answer questions; but we want to have a productive discussion,” Geisler said. “We’re open to creative, political ideas, too – and that’s where the politicians come in. If it’s not keeping [Skanska] from building a bridge – or anything in the area until they do the right thing and make these businesses whole – what are some other ideas?”
The attorneys have sent a letter to Congressman Matt Gaetz, seeking his input and help. As of Thursday, no answer had been received. But Geisler says Gaetz isn’t alone; 27 other local politicians and leaders are being asked to lean on Skanska.
“One of those could be saying, ‘Look, if you don’t make these businesses whole you’re not going to build another bridge in this state, or the area, until you do,’” said Geisler. “Because the wheels of justice can take time – and time is not something our local businesses really have.”
And Geisler is quick to add that this case bears absolutely no resemblance to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, which produced a multi-billion dollar settlement with BP.
“This is a pot of money that they are limiting their liability to; you still have to put forth a claim and kind of prove up your losses like you would anyways,” said Geisler. “I want to make that pretty clear, just because nobody’s familiar with this in the area that’s not a lawyer.”
The meetings this weekend, says Geisler, could be the start of a series of forums on the theme “Holding Skanska Accountable.”
“We’ll gauge the interest; so far the interest has been pretty high,” Geisler said. “Folks have an interest, obviously, in how this turns out. I think there will be other opportunities down the road.”
Repairs to the Three Mile Bridge are expected to continue through March, and perhaps beyond then. The Florida Department of Transportation is docking Skanska up to $35,000 per day while the span is out of commission.