Official: Engineer was not negligent

The prosecuting corporation recommends dropping charges connected to the faulty drainage ponds at the Courthouse Annex.

Published July 14, 2006

INVERNESS - Negligence charges against engineer Troy Burrell, who designed the failed drainage ponds at the Courthouse Annex, should be dismissed, according to the private engineering corporation that has been prosecuting the case.

In paperwork filed this week with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings, investigator Bruce A. Campbell concludes that the Florida Engineers Management Corp. "failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence the allegations that ...Burrell was negligent in the practice of engineering with regard to the Stovall Building drainage management plan."

The Stovall Building is the previous name for the annex.

Campbell blames the failure of the drainage ponds, which flooded the property of neighbor John Godowski in June 2003, on several major factors.

A soils report Burrell used to design the ponds included incorrect information on the seasonal high water table.

The rains were exceptional at that time.

Also, a berm designed by Burrell to divert water was not built by the contractor on the project.

Campbell went on to say that the permeability of the soils on the site "did not add significantly to the causes of the system failure."

Yet in the original complaint against Burrell, the engineering corporation stressed that Burrell was negligent in not recognizing the permeability limitations of the soil, among other professional failures.

Frederick T. Reeves, Burrell's attorney, said Thursday that he and his client were pleased with Campbell's recommendations.

"They basically conceded the case," he said. "I think that we put on a good enough case and they realized that their case was flimsy against Mr. Burrell."

For two days in May, Reeves presented witnesses and evidence on behalf of Burrell before administrative law Judge Susan B. Harrell in New Port Richey.

He argued that Burrell had relied on the soil and water table information in a report signed and sealed by an engineer at Central Testing Laboratories. That report was critical to Burrell's design of the drainage system at the annex.

Using the geotechnical reports from engineers who are experts in that area is a common practice for civil engineers, Reeves said.

At that same hearing, investigator Douglas Sunshine presented expert witnesses who testified that the ponds' failure showed that the engineer was negligent.

Sunshine no longer works for the Florida Engineers Management Corp., the private firm that investigates and prosecutes allegations of engineer misconduct before the Florida Board of Professional Engineers.

His replacement, Campbell, wrote the recommended order filed this week.

Shortly after the annex drainage system was built, rainwater was found standing in the ponds even though they were supposed to dry after a time.

Months later, Godowski's property flooded in a heavy rain.

He filed the formal complaint against Burrell. On Thursday, Godowski had little to say.

"I made the complaint and that is the due process of law," he said. "If that's the result, then that's that."

Since that pond failure, government officials have spent more than $1-million pumping water to avoid another flood, and designing and building a new system of deeper and wider holding ponds.

Construction has been under way since spring.

Who will pay those added costs from moisture intrusion into the annex after heavy rains has not been determined.

County officials met in mediation in early May with the contractor, Dooley and Mack. Since then, the construction firm has sought and received a stack of public records concerning the project, said County Attorney Robert "Butch" Battista.

Another mediation session is planned in August.

If the negligence charges against Burrell are formally dropped, Battista said that would impact the mediation.

"It does have an impact, one that's obviously favorable to Mr. Burrell," he said.

Reeves said he planned to formally concur with Campbell's recommendation to dismiss the negligence charge.

Then Harrell, the administrative law judge, will issue her own recommendation, which will require formal approval by the Board of Engineers later this year.

"I'm very pleased that the Florida Engineers Management Corp. did the right thing," Reeves said. "But I think we'll wait to pop the champagne corks for when the Board of Engineers acts."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.