tampabay.com

Troubled 10 miles cost DOT $1M more

By DAN DEWITT
Published April 2, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Smith & Co. sued the state Department of Transportation five years ago for $32-million, blaming the state for the company's problems building a 10-mile stretch of the Suncoast Parkway.

Last week, after a three-week trial, a jury awarded Smith $1.3-million.

"We feel vindicated," said Greg Jones, the department's chief of civil litigation, who pointed out the Smith's claim had been for more than the contracted price of the job, $29-million.

Neither Steve Smith, the company's president, nor its lawyer, Joseph Lawrence of Fort Lauderdale, returned phone calls to their offices this week.

DOT awarded Smith, based in Stuart, two road-building jobs in Hernando County in the late 1990s - building the section of parkway north of State Road 50, and widening the SR 50 truck bypass and U.S. 41 in Brooksville.

Both projects were frequently delayed and both ended with the company suing the state.

The lawsuit that ended last week was filed in April 2002. That was shortly before the parkway job was completed - 180 days late, the state said, not including a previous 90-day extension it had granted the company.

Smith said the state should have granted more extensions and provided better direction for the job. Also, Smith claimed, the state failed to anticipate the sinkholes that opened up on the road's right of way during construction. The company said this and other problems added $10-million to the cost of the project, said Calvin Johnson, a DOT lawyer involved in the case.

The jury awarded the company $200,000 compensation for the sinkhole damage and awarded no money for the company's largest claim: that the added costs and delays on the parkway job had cost Smith more than $23-million in lost business opportunities, court documents show.

The state had previously said the company owed it more than $900,000 in fines for finishing the job late. It dropped this claim shortly before the trial, Johnson said.

"There could have possibly been some weaknesses in our position," he said.

Smith had also received extensions for the work in Brooksville, which began in 1999 and finished three years later - more than a year after the scheduled completion date. Smith sued DOT for $6.4-million on that job, claiming the department was to blame for the delays.

A jury eventually awarded the company $1.4-million.

Some of the delays on the Brooksville project, the company claimed, were due to poor engineering plans the city had provided it for the relocation of utility lines next to the roads. The city agreed to pay Smith $900,000 for the delays - a deal that restricted Smith's right to sue the city.

"That agreement has been a very big obstacle for anyone contemplating a suit against the city," said Emory Pierce, public works director for Brooksville.

Smith no longer has the right to bid on state road contracts, partly because it does not have adequate financial resources, Jones said.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6116.