New Bonner Bridge construction 2017
Construction cranes on the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge earlier this year. Photo: Connie Leinbach

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Raleigh–Six class-action lawsuits filed against PCL will be consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and under the oversight of James C. Dever III, chief U.S. district judge.

According to a statement released Monday by Rose Harrison & Gilreath, P.C., Nags Head, instead of the court having six different complaints to consider, one master, consolidated complaint will be filed with the court in about 30 days.   

The court has appointed six law firms to represent all persons and entities that were affected in a power outage that occurred July 27 to Aug. 3 when workers for PCL Construction, who are rebuilding the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in Dare County, dropped a steel casing damaging the main electric transmission cables to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.  The damage resulted in a week-long power outage to both islands and prompted county officials to evacuate visitors while both islands ran on generator power

Dever appointed a team of lawyers to go forward with the claims. They are Whitfield Bryson & Mason LLP, the Zaytoun Law Firm and Wallace & Graham, P.A., as the interim co-lead counsel.  Dever also appointed a steering committee of the Law Office of Jean Sutton Martin, PLLC, Morgan & Morgan Complex Litigation Group, McCune Wright Arevalo, LLP, Hendren, Redwine & Malone, PLLC, Rose Harrison & Gilreath, P.C., and Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP.

Over the next 45 days, the members of the committees will prepare a case management plan to be submitted to the court setting out a projected timetable for completing the many tasks ahead.  A status conference with the Court is scheduled for Dec. 18 in the federal courthouse in Raleigh.

“Our goal is to work hard to make sure that every single person or business in on Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island who sustained damages from PCL’s negligent acts are fully compensated,” the statement said.  “We have learned that PCL has asked victims to send in an “Outer Banks Claim Questionnaire” to the company’s agent. While we commend PCL for offering to discuss the losses suffered by individuals and business owners, we have some serious concerns.”

Those concerns are as follows:

  • Many business owners may not yet be aware of the full scope of their losses. For many businesses, it will take a financial or accounting expert to review historical and year-to-date revenues and other information to determine the scope of the loss. We do not know whether PCL will pay for the full loss based only on an estimate, although we hope they do for people making the claims.
  • There may be long-term losses. Some are reporting cancellations for September and the rest of the year. There may be additional losses going forward, for example, if disgruntled tourists do not return. The full extent of lost income, lost profit, lost opportunity and other damages should be reviewed. Even a small reduction in tourism could result in significant losses for the individual business down the line.
  • The “Claim Questionnaire” requires claimants to give out personal information without any assurances of protection and confidentiality. The form does not say who PCL may show the information to or for what purposes. Privacy rights may be affected.
  • The claim form does not limit how PCL may use the information. For example, if a business owner claims $10,000 in losses and PCL will not pay, PCL could try to use that information in a later lawsuit if the business owner realizes he actually has more than $10,000 in losses. Any description of loss provided in writing could become evidence down the road.
  • Does PCL intend to demand that victims sign a release of claims? For example, if PCL intends to require a wide-ranging release, then if there are losses in the future, the claimant may not have a remedy. We advise against a broad release of claims, and we also believe the settlement should not be confidential. If the payment comes with a requirement it has to be confidential then neighbors will not be able to compare their settlements and make sure they are treated fairly. If they do disclose their payment amount they risk having it yanked back.
  • What is the time frame? The claim form does not provide any rules or requirements PCL will follow and no indication how soon PCL will pay claims. It says nothing about the criteria PCL is using or how it is accounting for different kinds of losses.

“The bottom line is that we do not know what the rules are that PCL is working by since it has not posted them, and we don’t know if PCL will pay fairly because we have not heard what anyone has received yet,” the statement said.  “We advise affected victims to choose whatever route works best for them.”

Hyde County Manager Bill Rich said Wednesday that since the lawsuits were filed, PCL can no longer comment on their claims processing, but prior to that, PCL had told him they had processed 600 to 700 claims though were unable to break them down between Ocracoke and Dare County. 

“That was about a week ago,” Rich said. “They (PCL) seem to have done everything they said they would,” adding “They also have notified everyone on Ocracoke who has submitted a claim.”

Rich said Hyde County will submit a claim to PCL when they can calculate the losses from the state sales and county occupancy taxes and how much insurance will cover.  State sales tax tallies run two months behind collection, he said.

Although the Observer requested comment from the Rodney Pettey law firm in Raleigh, who is representing PCL, it went unanswered. The firm, in a prior story, said they could not comment on cases in litigation.

To read a prior story on the class-action lawsuits, click here.

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