A judge in Broward has cleared the way for a lawsuit against Florida Power & Light by more than 9,200 businesses who contend a utility contractor was negligent in causing a massive water main break that left more than 200,000 people without water in Fort Lauderdale last year, some for up to two days.
One of the businesses forced to shut down was the law firm of David Di Pietro, a plaintiff in the lawsuit which has been granted class-action status. He said he had to close his office at about 11 a.m. that day and sent 15 employees home, a loss in business he calculates at $7,000 to $10,000.
“We had drinking water, but our bathrooms weren’t working, so we couldn’t stay open,” said Di Pietro. “It’s not like we are talking about a small landscaping company that inadvertently hit a pipe. This is a major corporation that should know what it’s doing and should supervise its contractors. “
On July 18 last year, an unlicensed subcontractor struck a 42-inch pipe at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport while drilling underground to repair electric lines, according to court documents. Emergency crews had to shut off the water to repair the pipe, leading stores, restaurants and hotels to close for as many as two days as the city issued a boil water notice to thousands of residents.
The courthouse, universities and even the Broward Center for the Performing Arts were forced to shutter. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis declared a state of emergency.
Judge William Haury granted class action certification on Friday in a suit that could have damages reaching into the hundreds of millions, said Adam Moskowitz, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.
“The utility showed reckless disregard for the work that its contractors were doing,” Moskowitz said. “FPL didn’t supervise its contractors as it should, so it’s responsible for what happened.” Attorneys Cristina Pierson and William R. Scherer are also working on the case.
Moskowitz said a hearing to seek punitive damages is set for October 2.
Fort Lauderdale has been plagued by sewer and water main breaks over the past year as the city’s crumbling pipes can’t keep up with rising volumes. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection imposed a $1.8 million fine on the city for spewing millions of gallons of raw sewage into the city’s waterways and onto streets while Mayor Trantalis vowed to implement a “Marshall Plan” to fix the city’s plumbing. Fed-up residents, backed by some commissioners, have called for a suspension on new development in the fast-growing city.
In the case of the water main break, FPL hired contractor Infratech Corporation, which subcontracted Florida Communication Concepts, which in turn subcontracted a three-person crew from Geo & Yus Corp., which caused the damage, according to court documents. The contractors are also named in the lawsuit along with FPL.
While the city scrambled to repair the damaged pipe, businesses across Fort Lauderdale were closing down, unable to operate without water for preparing and serving food or keeping bathrooms open, spaces air conditioned, and maintaining adequate fire-sprinkler systems.
FPL said it does not comment on pending litigation. FCC and Geo & Yus did not respond to requests for comment.
The Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard and the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort are also among the named plaintiffs. They had to shut down and tell guests to leave because they couldn’t operate without fire sprinklers.