Skanska, the owner of 27 barges that broke free from their mooring stations during Hurricane Sally in September 2020, striking and damaging the Pensacola Bay Bridge and other properties in and around the bay, lost its petition for relief from liability under the Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act.
On December 29, 2021, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida Pensacola Division dismissed Skanska’s complaint. The Court Order and Final Judgment stated that “under the ‘Louisiana Rule,’ presumption of negligence is established over the fact that numerous barges belonging to Skanska broke loose when Hurricane Sally struck the Pensacola area, causing widespread damage.”
Brian Barr of Levin Papantonio Rafferty described the Court’s ruling as “a resounding rejection of all of the excuses Skanska offered for its failure to prepare. Skanska had time to prepare for Hurricane Sally but decided to wait and do as little as possible.”
“The community paid the price for Skanska’s recklessness, but this Order is an important step to forcing Skanska to take full responsibility for its decisions,” Barr said.
The Laws at Play in the Court’s Decision
The Limitation of Liability Act manifested in 1851 as a means of protecting vessel owners from liability for ship and cargo losses, as well as deaths or injuries at sea. Under this act, ship owners cannot be held liable for amounts exceeding the value of their vessels and freight. This limitation is contingent upon the vessel owner’s being without privity or knowledge of the acts that resulted in damage.
According to the Order, Skanska was unable to prove that it was without knowledge or privity as to its negligence, and the case for limitation of liability was dismissed.
Skanska’s Role in the Pensacola Bay Bridge Disaster
Skanska was contracted by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to build two new spans for the Pensacola Bay Bridge, a major transportation link between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, as well as between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
The company used a fleet of 55 barges to facilitate construction work—transporting materials and workers to the work site.
Beginning September 10, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued a five-day weather notice of a tropical disturbance traveling toward Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The televised hurricane weather reports showed the probable track of the storm, along with a three-day cone showing that the actual path of the hurricane could extend from eastern Louisiana, around 200 miles west of Pensacola Bay, to Apalachicola, Florida, which lies around 160 miles east of the bay.
On September 12, Skanska Project Manager Robert Rodgers was the first member of the company’s management team to become aware of the storm. By the time management convened via videoconference to discuss the matter, the storm had been upgraded to Tropical Storm Sally and its position updated to the western coast of the southern tip of Florida.
The storm was projected to strengthen into a hurricane by 7pm on Monday, September 14. The 4-5 day projection showed that the Pensacola area and areas east lay clearly within the cone.
Skanska managers decided to prepare to demobilize the 55 barges and to alert local tugboat captains that their services might be required. There was no evidence that such outreach efforts took place. One barge positioned at the Pensacola Bay Bridge was permitted to continue operation.
On Sunday, September 19, Skanska began to demobilize barges by securing them to pipe pilings at mooring stations within 500 feet of the bridge, rather than at the designated mooring stations established in the Hurricane Preparedness Work Plan.
At 3am Tuesday, the first of several barges broke free from its moorings. Another barge broke free and struck the section of the old Pensacola Bay Bridge that had been converted into a fishing pier. At 7am, another barge broke free, becoming lodged underneath the bridge and damaging bridge supports. At 6pm, another barge broke free and became lodged under the bridge.
The Court’s Decision
The claimants in the lawsuit against Skanska allege that the company’s “wait and see” attitude, slow decision making, and failure to seriously weigh the risks of the approaching storm resulted in the company’s inability to tow the barges to safer mooring stations—rather than near the Pensacola Bay Bridge.
The Court rejected Skanska’s argument that it was, essentially, ambushed by Hurricane Sally. The Court also referenced the company’s Hurricane Plan, which clearly specifies the wind and timing conditions under which barges should be demobilized to Butcherpen Cove—and Hurricane Sally clearly met these conditions.
The Court found Skanska negligent “wholly from executive decision-making that resulted in the failure to take reasonable measures to protect its barges from the impending storm.”