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Tampa Bay Water loses lawsuit over reservoir cracks

TAMPA - A federal jury handed a stunning defeat to Tampa Bay Water on Tuesday, leaving the authority responsible for funding repairs to its cracked reservoir. The jury ruled against the agency's lawsuit against HDR Engineering, finding the firm did not breach standards by defectively designing the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir. The verdict came after less than four hours of deliberations, following nearly a month of testimony over engineering and design. HDR argued that the reservoir was working properly, with the exception of some limited areas of cracking, which were construction, not design, mistakes. Although Tampa Bay Water had sought more than $100 million to repair the reservoir, the sides nearly settled the case in September for $30 million. But in October, Tampa Bay Water's board of directors changed its mind and voted unanimously to reject the settlement.
In closing arguments, HDR attorney Wayne Mason urged jurors to return a quick verdict in favor of the design firm. "While this case dragged on for weeks, your decision need not keep you locked up for days or even hours in that jury room," he said. He told the jury it needed only to answer "no" to the first question: Did HDR breach the standard of care by defectively designing the reservoir in a manner that was the legal cause of damage? And the jury obliged. The answer meant the panel didn't have to consider other questions such as when did Tampa Bay Water first suffer damage or injury as a result of HDR's defective design? And most importantly, the jury didn't have to determine a dollar amount for an award because there is no award. After the verdict was announced, Tampa Bay Water General Manager Gerald Seeber said he still believes HDR is liable. The firm designed the reservoir, certified it to the state and it developed cracks. Seeber said the authority would be reviewing its legal options, but he didn't say what those options might be. "They can look at their options, but the court gave us a fair trial and a very clean record," Mason said after. Regarding the jury, he said, "Hopefully, they just saw the facts and the truth of what we presented." He declined to speculate whether the jury was sending a rebuke to the water authority, which he had accused of covering up for its mistakes and padding repair cost estimates. Tampa Bay Water alleged in its unsuccessful lawsuit that HDR was responsible for design flaws that caused cracks in the 15.5 billion-gallon reservoir shortly after it became operational in 2006. "These are desperate people doing desperate things," Mason said during his closing argument. Mason said the reservoir was repaired in 2009 and developed only three cracks since. Testing, he said, supported the conclusion that there is no longer an issue. Tampa Bay Water attorney Richard Harrison said the reservoir cracks every time it is used. "The reservoir's not repaired," he said. "The reservoir's still cracking." The 2009 repairs, he added, were short term. "I think everybody understands the difference between short-term repair and long-term repair," he said. He said the agency was not seeking anything more than it was entitled to receive because of the design flaws, and he dismissed Mason's criticism of Tampa Bay Water as "conspiracy theories." "These are just decent people working for the government trying to do good things for our community today and in the future," he said. "How are all these people supposed to put together this massive conspiracy to bilk HDR out of money when everything they do is public?" Among the 10 jurors chosen to make sense of the conflicting engineering opinions were a stay-at-home mother, a manager at a surgical supply company and a residential developer. The jury also included an elementary school guidance office employee and insurance analyst. The agency settled with two other contractors involved in construction of the reservoir. Tampa Bay Water is a regional agency responsible for providing water to utilities in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7837

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