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Bridge Deck Defects Spark Legal Storm

Monday, October 14, 2013

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A bridge deck in Oregon is coming apart just a year after completion, triggering a coast-to-coast legal showdown over who is to blame.

The dustup involves Portland's Morrison Bridge, which underwent a $4.2 million rehabilitation project in 2011 and 2012 that replaced the lift span's open steel deck grating with fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) panels.

Shortly after the deck was finished in March 2012, it started cracking and shifting, and fasteners were popping loose. County engineers have maintained that the bridge is still safe.

Originally opened in 1958, the Chicago-type bascule bridge carries six lanes of traffic and about 50,000 vehicles per day over the Willamette River.

Suits and Countersuits

Conway Construction, the Ridgefield, OR-based contractor that completed the project, says that the bridge's owner, Multnomah County, chose the FRP decking manufactured by ZellComp Inc. in North Carolina and supplied by Strongwell Corp. in Virginia.

In June, Conway filed suit against ZellComp and Strongwell, alleging that the system was "not appropriate nor adequate," although ZellComp told the county it was. Conway denies responsibility for the problem.

The county then decided to get involved in the suit, filing as an intervenor in the case in September. The county added negligence and breach-of-contract claims against both Conway and ZellComp (not Strongwell), saying that the debacle has cost it more than $2 million.  

Morrison Bridge deck
Photos: Multnomah County

A fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) deck on the Morrison Bridge in Oregon started coming apart shortly after its completion in 2012. The contractor says the decking was "not appropriate nor adequate" for the project.

While waiting for the lawsuit to proceed (a trial date was expected to be set Friday, Oct. 11), the county's Board of Commissioners voted Thursday (Oct. 10) to move forward with a proposed settlement with Conway, OregonLive.com reported.

'Substantially Less'

Details about the proposed settlement were not released, but the county called the amount "substantially less" than what Conway is seeking.

"The settlement resolves the contractor's payment claims for additional time and work performed on the Morrison Bridge rehabilitation project," county spokesman Mike Pullen said in a statement reported by The Portland Mercury. "The settlement amount is substantially less than the contractor's claimed amount."

Pullen added: "As part of the proposed settlement, a portion of the settlement funds will be held in reserve pending resolution of the County's claims for problems with the Morrison Bridge decking. The settlement does not prevent the County from seeking compensation against the contractor or others for the bridge decking problems."

17,000 Square Feet of FRP

When Multnomah County announced the deck completion, it boasted the use of FRP, stating, "FRP is a relatively new material that is also strong and light weight, but offers the added benefit of a solid surface. ... The $4.2 million project improves safety for bridge users, because the new solid deck surface provides greater traction for motor vehicles."

The Multnomah County Bridge Section manages six bridges over the Willamette River and 20 smaller bridges throughout the county.

ZellComp has also touted the material and its use on the Morrison Bridge on its website, stating, "At over 17,000 square feet, this FRP bridge deck will be the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world."

Multnomah County

The Morrison Bridge opened in 1958 and carries about 50,000 vehicles per day over the Willamette River.

A request for comments from the county, Conway and ZellComp were not immediately returned Friday (Oct. 11).

Conway's Complaint

Conway's June lawsuit against ZellComp and Strongwell alleges that ZellComp's deck system was "not appropriate nor adequate" for the bridge project, but that ZellComp had told the county that it was. Travelers Casualty & Surety Company of America, which supplied the construction payment bonds, is also a plaintiff in that action.

The complaint alleges that ZellComp provided defective materials to Conway, including cracked and incorrectly sized panels, causing Conway to delay construction and expend additional materials and labor to install the deck.

After the project was complete, but before final acceptance and during the warranty period, the county told Conway that the deck system was defective. Officials said that the FRP decking panels had come loose, damaging them, the fiberglass topcoat, and the roadway—and that the problem was getting worse.

Later, the county also alleged that the fasteners—"which ZellComp specified, supplied, instructed upon installation, and oversaw and approved the installation of"—had failed.

The county demanded that Conway repair both the deck panels and the fasteners.

Conway Construction

The county almost fired Conway from the project in 2011, after the company was fined for spilling waste into the river, stalling the project for a few months.

The purchase order for the deck system was $1,240,641.66. Conway says it has paid ZellComp $942,702.15 and is "entitled to offset for the defective materials supplied during construction in the amount of $111,337.70."

If the deck system needs to be replaced, the estimated cost is $1.5 million. Based on these figures, "ZellComp owes Conway the sum of $1,313,398.19," the complaint states.

County Intervenes

In September, Multnomah County filed an intervention to the lawsuit, becoming an intervenor plaintiff, alleging that the decking defects damaged the decking panels, the QuikBond topcoat applied to the decking, and other elements of the bridge.

The county said it would likely incur damages totaling over $2 million, including lost personnel time, consultant costs and fees, attorney's fees and the still-unknown price tag to fix the bridge.

The county claimed breach of contract, negligence, breach of warranty and contractual indemnity against Conway. The county alleged that Conway's work resulted in the bridge defects, that Conway failed to supervise and ensure the proper work of the subcontractors, and other wrongdoing.

Filing negligence and breach-of-contract claims against ZellComp, the county alleged that the company "presented a foreseeable risk of harm in the form of defects and property damage" and furnished defective bridge decking.

Early Issues

The bridge project came to a halt in 2011 when the county threatened to fire Conway over multiple operational, safety and environmental problems.

In 2011, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a $3,600 penalty to Conway for water quality violations during work on the bridge in July 2011. The penalty, which Conway appealed, alleged that the company left waste where it could get into the Willamette River.

Additionally, the DEQ cited Conway for "spilling a small amount of epoxy" into the river in October 2011. No penalty was assessed because it was a small spill and because Conway "quickly made sure that no more epoxy would get into the river" and installed a new containment system.

   

Tagged categories: Bridge/parking deck waterproofing; Bridges; Contractors; Deck coatings; Department of Transportation (DOT); Lawsuits

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