Jury Gets MetroLink Extension Suit

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Copyright 2007
By Ken Leiser and William C. Lhotka

ST. LOUIS COUNTY — A jury began deliberations Monday after lawyers made their closing arguments in the Metro transit agency’s damage suit against four companies over MetroLink construction delays and cost overruns.

Now entering its 15th week, it’s described as the longest civil trial in St. Louis County history.

Metro, known formally as the Bi-State Development Agency, alleges breach of contract and fraud. It seeks almost $82 million in actual damages from the Cross County Collaborative, a joint venture of Parsons Brinckerhoff, STV Inc., Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. and Kwame Building Group Inc.

The collaborative was the original designer and construction manager of the eight-mile extension to Shrewsbury from Forest Park. The partners filed a counterclaim against Metro after they were fired in August 2004.

Jurors listened to six hours of closing arguments from the two sides before going to the jury room about 4:50 p.m. Monday.

The trial began 96 days earlier, when the same lawyers gave opening arguments that lasted parts of two days. Since then, jurors have heard from 50 witnesses directly and 30 more by videotape.

They also saw hundreds of documents posted on two large screens.

After Presiding Judge Carolyn C. Whittington read page after page of legal instructions, attorneys for the two sides came out swinging.

“We ask you to make them keep their promises,” said William Thomas, a lawyer for Metro. “This was a project out of control. It was a total failure and the evidence proves it.”

Metro took the project over and completed it in August 2006 — about 15 months behind the original schedule and $126 million over budget. It blamed the joint venture for a significant portion of the overruns.

Defense lawyers told the jury that the companies performed well under trying circumstances involving utility relocations, real estate acquisitions and design changes sought by both Metro and neighborhoods.

Mark Grantham, an Atlanta-based defense attorney, said Metro executives, including agency President Larry Salci and former executive vice president Steve Knobbe, “set us up as scapegoats” while “plotting secretly to fire us.”

Grantham asked the jury to award more than $5.9 million to the collaborative for work it performed but was never paid.

Metro is seeking about $76 million for negligence and breach of contract. The agency also wants $5.7 million on four fraud claims. One of them involved allegations of bills totaling $2.1 million for work that was never done.

On the fraud issues, which require a finding that defendants knowingly made false presentations, defense lawyers took the offensive, calling the accusations “evil” and “shameful” and “preposterous.”

“We made no false statements and we told no lies,” said Tim Thornton, a defense lawyer.

To frequent allegations by Metro lawyers and expert witnesses that collaborative engineers and architects failed to meet their industry standard, defense attorney James Bennett replied: “These people meet the standard of care when they go to work every day.”

The trial had already exceeded the initial schedule by several weeks. The judge urged both sides to finish by Christmas and they met that deadline.

A judge with 43 years of service and a jury commissioner with 32 years both said Monday they are unaware of any case in the circuit that took longer to try.

Until Metro vs. the Cross County Collaborative, the longest jury trial they can remember took place over four weeks in March and April 2003. It involved the allegedly wrongful termination of an executive by an auto rental company. It resulted in a $4 million plaintiff’s judgment that a judge later set aside.

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