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Judge Rules in WA Tunnel Boring Case

Friday, April 26, 2019

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In a ruling related to a 2013 incident in which a buried steel pipe resulted in the breakdown of Bertha, the Seattle tunnel borer used in construction of the State Route 99 tunnel, a judge recently called out the borer operator for losing evidence associated with the incident. The judge also called for as-yet-undetermined sanctions against the company for the loss.

Evidence lost includes pieces of the pipe, boulders and a crew member’s journal. Tunnel borer operator Seattle Tunnel Partners is suing the state, alleging that Bertha was damaged when the borer struck the pipe. WSDOT had previously buried the pipe. The evidence is connected to a $624 million cost-overrun lawsuit.

Bertha the Borer

Months after its initial launch, Bertha’s gears came grinding to a halt in an incident in which it either hit an underground pipe, according to STP, or some dirt made its way into a bearing, overheating the machine, according to WSDOT. It took two years (from December 2013 to December 2015) to fix the one-of-a-kind machine, but through 2016 and the early months of 2017, Bertha made quick work of the Seattle underground. Bertha was built by Japanese manufacturer Hitachi Zosen, and was disassembled in July 2017.

Last month, Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. made progress on the demolition of Seattle’s double-decked Alaskan Way Viaduct, which serves as part of a larger move for the construction of the $712 million Waterfront Seattle Program. The final stage of the structure’s $3.3 billion replacement will see the addition of the new SR 99 tunnel.

Recent Ruling

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy noted in her recent ruling that “STP consciously disregarded the importance of the missing pipe pieces and boulder in failing to preserve them.”

Murphy went on to call the loss of evidence “not innocent or accidental,” though the judge also found that STP did not intentionally “destroy or hide” the pieces of pipe and boulders. This highlights the importance of the missing journal, however. The journal was kept by deputy project manager Greg Hauser during the 2013 incident.

According to The Seattle Times, the buried pipe was left behind after the state conducted groundwater testing. The pieces of pipe were likely thrown away during an overnight job site cleanup in January or February 2014, and bits of steel and granite boulders were stored near the downtown waterfront, an area accessible to tunnel workers.

Murphy added that though evidence could have been moved to a locked building, contractors did not do so. The judge went on to accuse tunnel partners Dragados and Tutor-Perini of spoliation of evidence due to the loss.

Currently, WSDOT is working on its own defense regarding STP’s accusations. Earlier court depositions report that STP used the pipe in question to check groundwater before tunneling commenced. State officials also maintain that an 8-inch, 3/8-inch-thick pipe could not have stopped the drill.  

Pieces of pipe and chunks of boulder were important in their own ways, according to Murphy: namely that the pipe was needed for metallurgical testing, and the boulders caused wear on the borer’s cutting teeth.

WSDOT said that it was pleased with the judge’s ruling. As for sanctions, insurers are recommending that any jury that takes the case should presume that the missing evidence was not on the side of the tunnel borer operator.

Though some pieces of evidence are missing, a 55-foot-long piece of steel pipe and a small piece were kept and assessed.

   

Tagged categories: Infrastructure; Lawsuits; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Roads/Highways; Tunnel

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