After a crane-mounted barge slammed into the Sunshine Bridge on Oct. 12, shutting down the Mississippi River span for nearly two months, nearby communities that took an economic hit from the closure quickly learned two frustrating facts: 1) they stood little chance of legally recouping damages for their financial losses, and 2) they, and every other taxpayer in the state, would essentially be on the hook for the cost of repairs, estimated to be some $5 million.
In part, that’s because in the days immediately after the accident, attorneys for the barge company involved, Marquette Transportation, raced to court, filing documents seeking to limit Marquette’s liability to $1.5 million, roughly the cost of the vessel. As for the remaining $3.5 million tab? Well, the expectation is the state bear that cost.
As it turns out, this isn’t so unusual—though it is an extreme example.
Accidents that damage state infrastructure happen “all the time,” says Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson, and oftentimes the company or individual responsible does not repay the full cost of repairs.
“When we do find out who’s involved, we try to get reimbursed for what we can,” Wilson says. “We rarely get back everything.”
A sampling of DOTD’s past legal cases with Marquette and other companies, obtained by Business Report, prove Wilson to be right (see graphic, above), though it appears none are as egregious as the Sunshine Bridge incident. Moreover, some claims do get paid back in full, or at least close to it.
Maritime accidents, such as barge collisions with bridges, are often the most costly repairs for the state. But DOTD also has to deal with frequent damage to state highway infrastructure, such as collisions with guardrails, concrete barriers or signage. In many cases, the responsible party is nowhere to be found.
It’s impossible to estimate, says Wilson, how much of DOTD’s annual budget is spent repairing damage not paid for by the responsible outside party. That’s because not only are these incidents so frequent but also the amount taxpayers have to cover varies. In East Baton Rouge Parish alone, there have been more than 400 damage claims filed since 1992, according to the DOTD legal department, some of which are still open.
Highways officials and legal experts offer practical explanations as to why the state often does not get paid back in full in the damage cases.
Many companies, in defending their practice, cite depreciation as the reason for not having to pay the full cost of repairs for damage they’ve caused to the state’s infrastructure. Consequently, they’re willing to cover only what the piece of infrastructure cost at the time of the incident.
Think of what happens if you wreck your car, Wilson says. Let’s say you’re driving a 2005 vehicle and total it. Your insurance won’t pay for the price of a new car, but it will pay what the 2005 car was worth at its depreciated value.
LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center Dean Thomas Galligan, who specializes in admiralty and tort law, says if a driver damages a guardrail that was 20 years old and the state has to repair it, it’s is now better off than having a 20-year-old rail.
“If it’s a bridge, the state may have had to spend a lot of money in 15 years to upgrade the bridge, but now that it’s repaired they’ll have 30 years,” Galligan says.
The idea is to make the structure whole again but not to enrich it.
The Sunshine Bridge case is somewhat unique, though, in that the company is using the Limitation of Liability Act in its defense. The maritime law dates back to 1851 and was created to protect vessel owners.
“It’s a special act that allows the owner of a vessel to limit liability to the post-accident value of the vessel as long as it doesn’t have privity or knowledge of whatever caused the damage,” Galligan says.
In other words, high-ranking Marquette executives did not have knowledge of the faults that gave rise to the accident.
With all the costs associated with the legal process, Wilson says, sometimes it ends up being cheaper for the state to settle. In the Sunshine Bridge case, it may be the best the state can do.
“This is a little more extraordinary,” Wilson says. “It’s probably one of the most expensive cases the state has seen in modern time.”