Settlement Reached in Hurricane Sally Barge Damage Lawsuit Between U.S. Justice Department and Skanska Construction

Pensacola, Fla. — Two barges which broke loose during the sonic assault of Hurricane Sally in 2020, causing extensive damages, became the subject of a federal lawsuit that concluded recently with a quiet settlement. The legal action, initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice against the Skanska construction company, was resolved following fruitful mediation last month, culminating in the dismissal of the case by U.S. Magistrate Judge Hope Thai Cannon.

The Department of Justice initially sought $1.43 million in damages from Skanska for the alleged negligence incurred during the hurricane’s onslaught. The barges, integral to a bridge construction project over Pensacola Bay, inflicted notable damage on naval infrastructure, including the Sam Lovelace Bridge and a secondary structure utilized by golf carts. Additionally, one of the barges encroached upon Naval Air Station Pensacola’s terrain, necessitating an operation to remove it.

While the specific agreement terms between the Department of Justice and Skanska remain sealed, the conclusion of this case brings an end to one chapter of a broader saga of legal and financial ramifications emerging from the hurricane’s chaos.

Hurricane Sally, documented as a Category 2 storm, made its devastating landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, directly impacting the western regions of Pensacola. Winds and waves dislodged the Skanska barges anchored in the bay, despite forecasts and warnings about the severe weather system issued well ahead of its arrival.

According to the complaint filed by the DOJ, under general maritime law and the guidelines of its own Hurricane Preparedness Work Plan, Skanska was expected to take proactive measures. This would have included demobilizing and relocating its barges to safe harbors, designated in anticipation of such catastrophic events. The failure to secure the vessels appropriately led to significant direct impacts on surrounding structures and prompted extensive closures and repairs.

Particularly hard-hit was the Pensacola Bay Bridge, necessitating a strenuous and lengthy nine-month repair initiative. The repercussions extended beyond structural damage, affecting countless residents and property owners along the coastline who faced their own losses.

In response to the initial charges, Skanska sought legal avenues to either clear or limit its liability concerning the barge damage. During a bench trial spanning October 18-22, 2021, substantial evidence and testimony were presented by Skanska’s legal team to argue against claims of negligence. However, the judge’s ruling didn’t lean in their favor; it instead set a precedent allowing for over a thousand public and private plaintiffs to seek reparations for various damages.

The fallout from Hurricane Sally underscores the profound impacts such storms can have not just from a meteorological perspective but also legally and economically. As companies and government entities rebuild and reallocate resources for recovery, the lessons learned from such incidents shape policy and preparedness measures for future crises. This settlement may not disclose its terms, but it symbolizes a resolution to a profound challenge posed by natural forces meeting human infrastructure.