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Reservoir designer rejects shorter trial in Tampa Bay Water suit over damage

CLEARWATER — When the lawsuit over the cracks in Tampa Bay Water's reservoir goes to trial next month, jurors will have to sit through weeks of testimony about construction materials and techniques.

The water agency's board voted Monday to take a different tack with the case that would have speeded up the trial, slated to start March 12 in federal court in Tampa. But the only remaining defendant in the case, reservoir designer HDR Engineering, wouldn't agree to shortening the trial.

Tampa Bay Water's board wanted to use what's known as a "summary trial." Instead of a parade of witnesses who would be examined and cross-examined, most of the evidence would be summed up by the attorneys. A summary trial just takes three to four days, said the agency's counsel, Richard Harrison.

U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore proposed the idea, Harrison said. Summary trials were popular in federal court until about 15 years ago, when they were largely replaced by arbitration. Whittemore, contemplating a lengthy trial full of complicated, technical testimony, suggested both sides consider reviving it, Harrison said.

However, after the vote, HDR said it would not agree to shortening the trial or eliminating any of the testimony to save time.

The utility opened the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in 2005 to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir covers 1,100 acres in Hillsborough County.

Workers discovered cracks in December 2006. The cracks were not deemed to be a safety hazard, but Tampa Bay Water officials have long said they hoped the companies that designed and built the reservoir would bear most, if not all, of the $122 million cost of fixing its cracks.

Their suits against two of the contractors were settled for $6.75 million, leaving only HDR.

A proposal to settle with HDR for $30 million fell one vote short of being accepted last fall. Two weeks later, though, the board voted unanimously to reject the settlement, contending it isn't fair to make the ratepayers foot the bill for repairing a problem the utility says was caused by a bad design.

HDR contends the problem could be solved with a maintenance program for less than $1 million a year.

The board will hold one last special meeting on March 9 to discuss the upcoming trial before it starts.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Reservoir designer rejects shorter trial in Tampa Bay Water suit over damage 02/20/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2012 10:02pm]
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