Pensacola, Florida
Sunday October 22nd 2017

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Paying for A Bad Decision

By Duwayne Escobedo

When the Escambia Board of County Commissioners approved the plans to repair the basement of the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center (CBD) flooded by a June 2012 rainstorm, the board decided to rebuild the laundry and kitchen facilities in the basement. That decision has been a costly one for local taxpayers.

Not only is the county slated to begin building a $144.8 million facility to replace the flood-prone CBD that was destroyed during an explosion during a flood on April 30, 2014, but it has now also agreed to a $17.5 million settlement to inmates and corrections officers affected by that disaster.

After the 2012 flood had caused substantial damage to the detention facility basement, Sheriff David Morgan, an architect, and some county staff recommended to the county commissioners that laundry and kitchen should be relocated to a higher floor.

However, the Escambia Board of County Commissioners ignored the recommendations and rebuilt everything damaged by the 2012 flood in substantially the same place in the basement, an Escambia County grand jury found.

The project included installing laundry and kitchen equipment that ran on natural gas. In addition, it called for a proposed wall, berm and two pumps designed to mitigate flooding at the facility. However, the berm and two pumps were not installed at the time of the April 2014 flooding, a grand jury found.

The natural gas appliances were not properly bolted to the basement floor and floated as stormwater engulfed the floor. The gas lines were severed causing an explosion that killed two inmates, paralyzed a corrections officer and injured other employees and prisoners.

Since the explosion, the county has used nearly $6 million insurance money and federal funds annually to house its inmates in Santa Rosa and Walton counties. The proposed FY 2018 budget for the county has $5.2 million for detention costs outside the county.

Settlement Proposed
The latest tab is a proposed a $17.5 million settlement for the CBD. Rather than clog the Escambia County justice system with hundreds of individual trials, both attorneys for the plaintiffs and the county and its contractors have agreed to settle.

The 300-page proposed settlement filed July 14 in Escambia County Circuit Court with Judge Thomas Dannheisser is divided into seven categories and would make payouts to the 670 inmates and correction officers based on the severity of the injuries they suffered in the disaster.

The documents outline the known details of the blast. A severe downpour flooded the detention center basement and lifted the natural gas dryers off the floor because investigators alleged they were not properly bolted down. Some workers and inmates reportedly felt sick from the fumes, but inspectors called to the scene failed to shut off the natural gas service to the building. Fumes allegedly ignited the explosion as the water receded. Three years later, the destroyed building still sits in plain site on Leonard Street near the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

Escambia County is slated to pay the maximum $300,000 in sovereign immunity funding and chip in approximately another $6 million in insurance funding it took out to remodel the detention center. The rest will come from about eight private companies’ insurance coverage, such as A.E. New Jr. Inc., the construction company awarded the $1.7 million contract in December 2013 by the county to rebuild the basement.

Most Equitable Solution
Michles & Booth are representing about 100 claimants in the suit, according to attorney Marcus Michles. He said the class action lawsuit offers the most equitable way to settle the claims.

“Given the magnitude of the damage and the number of victims, this is a good result for the plaintiffs and defendants in the case,” Michles said. “It became very apparent from the outset that it would be very difficult to have 200 to 300 separate trials.”

The settlement is unopposed said Escambia County attorney Alison Rogers, who agreed with Michles that a class action lawsuit is a good way to handle the cases.

“In my personal opinion, the settlement case offers closure for everybody, the plaintiffs, and defendants,” she said.

A hearing is set at 10 a.m. Sept. 20 to finalize the settlement, a judicial assistant told Inweekly. After Dannheisser’s ruling in the case, those affected by the blast have 250 days to opt out of the proposed settlement, according to Rogers.

The seven classifications for the settlement payouts include such injuries as post-traumatic stress disorder in one category and back surgery in another. The three “gravely injured” claimants and their families—two inmates who were killed in the blast and a corrections officer Michael Hatkinson who was paralyzed—will fall outside the category system and receive the bulk of the settlement.

Stevenson & Klotz represents about 140 victims in the detention center explosion. Attorney Eric Stevenson said it was difficult to classify his clients because so many were poor and lacked health care to document their injuries.

“We had to establish what their injuries are,” Stevenson said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think everybody will be satisfied. It’s not enough to fully compensate everyone for what they went through.”

Under the current settlement about $8.4 million would be split among the two dead inmates’ families and the Hatkinson family, according to the court filing.

The rest of those who suffered injuries would divide about $5.6 million. Another $3.1 million would be used to pay legal fees and attorneys. The proposed payouts for the seven categories of various injuries run from about $1,200 to $115,000.

About $400,000 would go to administrative fees for the plaintiffs, such as the mailing of claim forms to the 448 who are represented by an attorney and another 220 will be sent to the best-known addresses of those who are not represented.