Attorneys representing the close to 1,000 commuters and business owners impacted by the Pensacola Bay Bridge’s outage are claiming that Skanska deliberately wiped cellphones to destroy evidence in the case.
The group of attorneys — primarily Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis and Overholtz; Levin Papantonio Rafferty; and Beggs & Lane — say that there have been multiple evidence issues in which they believe Skanska representatives deleted text messages, wiped cellphones and, in one case, said an employee did not have a cellphone when he did.
The allegations follow months of weekly conferences in federal court in Pensacola where attorneys for the claimants and attorneys for Skanska have gone back and forth resolving evidence issues to keep the case moving steadily along.
Skanska identified 13 key players who had oversight of the hurricane preparedness plan for Hurricane Sally to be involved with evidence in the case. Attorneys on behalf of the commuters and businesses requested documents such as text messages from those 13 people covering a time period directly before and after the September 2020 storm.
Of those 13, Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis and Overholtz attorney Nikki Guntner said information was missing from five cellphones.
“I think this is an incredibly important issue, and probably one of the most important issues in this case,” she said Wednesday.
The case centers on the allegation Skanska was negligent in its preparations for Hurricane Sally and its leadership failed to follow their own hurricane plan to prepare the Pensacola Bay Bridge construction site. When Sally hit, 23 Skanska barges broke loose in the bay, with five hitting and taking out a portion of the new bridge.
The Pensacola Bay Bridge was closed for almost nine months until Skanska rebuilt it enough to partially reopen to traffic in late May.
Skanska declined to comment as the company has a policy not to comment on pending litigation.
Skanska filed a response to object to the recent allegations, but as of Wednesday afternoon, the judge had not scheduled a hearing or issued an order on the matter.
Guntner said the claimants’ attorneys are seeking sanctions against Skanska for the evidence issues, ultimately hoping Skanska’s limitation action — which is what’s keeping the case in federal court as opposed to state court where most of the individual cases are on hold — will be denied.
If that step isn’t taken, Guntner said the attorneys are seeking sanctions such as fees and a finding that the evidence presented at trial is assumed to be missing pieces that are unfavorable to Skanska.
“You have to remember this isn’t a mom and pop business, Skanska is the fifth largest construction company in the world,” Guntner said. “When a company like that uses devices like cellphones, for example, on the job to communicate about that job they’re under an obligation to preserve that … and here the evidence at issue was destroyed.”
A bench trial in the case is scheduled to begin Sept. 13 to determine whether the scores of businesses and commuters that suffered economic impacts as a result of the bridge’s outage, rather than the claimants who had physical damage from loose barges, should be entitled to compensation.
Skanska is expected at the trial to urge for either total exoneration of financial responsibility or to limit that responsibility to the value of the barges, which is about $1.2 million.
Author: Emma Kennedy
Source: Pensacola News Journal