Kelley | Uustal’s Cristina Pierson Breaks Down Trial Over Drilling Accident That Left 9K+ Businesses w/o Water

Last month’s verdict finding a Florida company responsible for the drilling accident that left a large swath of Fort Lauderdale without water was keyed by testimony that the company failed to properly detail the work on dig forms, a co-lead counsel for the case’s 9000-plus-member plaintiff class told CVN.

“That… in my opinion, convinced the jury that [Florida Communications Concepts] was really not being forthcoming, and really bore a lot more responsibility… [than] other parties that they were just trying to point fingers at,” Kelley | Uustal’s Cristina Pierson said. 

In December, a 17th Circuit state court jury found Florida Communications Concepts, or FCC, 90 percent directly responsible and another 8 percent vicariously liable for a July 2019 water main break near Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. That break forced thousands of businesses to close and left the area under boil-water restrictions for days. 

The break occurred as part of a Florida Power & Light, or FPL, construction project, which involved boring, or directional drilling, to lay pipe. FCC oversaw the project, with subcontractor Geo & Yus, or G&Y, performing the drilling that hit the water main. 

The class of more than 9,000 affected businesses, ranging from small restaurants to large hotels, sued FCC, FPL, and others. However, FPL and other defendants settled the claims against them, leaving FCC the sole defendant to go to trial, over liability alone.

The plaintiffs’ legal team was co-led by Pierson; Adam Moskowitz, of The Moskowitz Law Firm; and William Scherer, of Conrad Scherer. They argued FCC failed to adequately describe the drilling work when it completed an “811” dig form used to locate underground utilities in the area.

FCC, Pierson told CVN, included only one site address on the drilling form, when two are typically provided to mark a drilling path’s beginning and end in directional drilling projects like the one at issue. 

Pierson said testimony from a Fort Lauderdale employee regarding that practice, as well as testimony from FCC’s own project foreman, Sean MacGregor, that he didn’t include both addresses, helped drive the verdict against the company.

“[MacGregor] knew that there was going to be boring all along,” Pierson said. “Yet at the same time the company took the position that they had no fault in this, that it was everybody else’s fault.”

The jury ultimately found the City of Fort Lauderdale 2 percent responsible for the incident. 

And Pierson said the jury’s allocation of G&Y’s 8 percent of responsibility to FCC was built on the testimony of that G&Y president, Geoanis Rivera, which established the subcontractor worked under FCC’s control. 

“FCC told them [G&Y] when to dig, where to dig, and how to dig,” Pierson said. “[G&Y] really had no responsibility for what went wrong here. It was FCC.”

Beyond FCC’s failure to provide adequate site information on the 811 form, plaintiffs argued the company lacked the qualifications to perform the work in the first place. And Pierson’s cross-exam of FCC vice president Christine Hicks was a key to proving that contention. 

“[Hicks] was unable to explain in any real way what kind of experience or licensure the company had to do this kind of work, and really could not explain how they met their contractual obligation,” Pierson said. “And [it] really did not in any way sound like a company that was acting responsibly at the time.”

The verdict sets up a trial over damages that will likely be scheduled later this year. Pierson said damage analysis is ongoing. However, with more than 9,000 businesses affected, damages could run into the tens of millions.

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