Big Dig Engineers Sue to Boost Liability Coverage

Engineering companies that worked on the massive Big Dig highway project filed suit against the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, saying the agency isn’t providing them with enough liability insurance against lawsuits.

The complaint, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, would require the Turnpike Authority, which manages the Big Dig, to bring the level of professional liability insurance back up to its original level of $50 million.

The amount of the insurance program dropped to about $20 million after two of the companies providing the insurance ran into financial difficulties.

The drop in coverage could leave the 20 engineering companies that worked on the $14.6 billion highway project without sufficient insurance, according to Abbie Goodman, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, a trade association representing the engineering companies.

“There have already been claims — formal, informal and through lawsuits — against design firms and their sub-consultants that exceed the $20 million,” said Michael Collora, the group’s lawyer.

Collora said the Turnpike is contractually obligated to fully fund the insurance program at the $50 million level.

Edward M. Ginsburg, a retired state judge and head of a team of lawyers and engineers seeking refunds from companies that worked on the project, said the Turnpike Authority wouldn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit.

“We have not yet seen the complaint. After we have an opportunity to review it, we will file an appropriate answer,” Ginsburg said in a written statement.

The complaint also names the Massachusetts Highway Department, a separate agency which managed the project before it was taken over by the Turnpike Authority in 1997.

Goodman said the group was forced to sue after the Turnpike refused offers by the group to resolve the dispute through mediation.

“The Turnpike is abdicating its legal responsibility to fully provide the insurance program they created, while their attorneys are suing individual design firms,” she said. “This action threatens the financial viability of many local engineering firms.”

The decision to go to court follows a decision by the Turnpike to file suit against Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which oversees the highway project, seeking as much as $146 million in what the Turnpike described as overcharges.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff said the suit is “without merit.”

In 1995 the highway department initiated the so-called “Owner Controlled Insurance Program” for the engineering firms with Big Dig contracts.

The move, which Collora said is common in projects as large and complex as the Big Dig, resulted in lower costs to the state because one large policy was purchased instead of a number of individual policies.

Work on the Big Dig is winding down with final demolition and construction of surface parks expected to finish up in 2005.

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