Cole Trial: What Caused Cracks? Who’s to Blame?

by | Mar 4, 2015

Two of the three homes on Sarah's Trace in which the owners are suing the town and school district over damage from construction of Cole Middle School, which sits just beyond the trees between the houses.

Two of the three homes on Sarah’s Trace in which the owners are suing the town and school district over damage from construction of Cole Middle School, which sits just beyond the trees between the houses.

The trial pitting three East Greenwich couples against the town and several construction entities got under way at Kent County Courthouse Wednesday, with the town arguing it was not responsible because it “was caught in the middle.”

The three couples, who own homes on Sarah’s Trace nearby Cole Middle School, filed suit in 2011 saying construction of the new school building damaged their houses and the town and other defendants were negligent.

The trial, before Superior Court Judge Bennett Gallo, officially began Tuesday, with jury selection. The jury, impaneled Wednesday around noon, is composed of five women and one man, with three alternates, all women.

(Coincidentally, one of those in the jury pool was former Town Councilor Brad Bishop. He was not questioned as a prospective juror. Had he been, it is likely the judge would have dismissed him since he had been privy to confidential information regarding the case during his time on the council, 2012-14.)

Both sides were allowed to have jurors dismissed without cause. Among the jurors dismissed Wednesday morning – at the request of the defense – were a man who works for a company that delivers to construction sites and a retired state worker. The first was unable to say whether or not he had made any deliveries to the Cole construction site. The second had once sued over a worker’s compensation claim.

Opening statements took up the afternoon, starting with the lawyer for the homeowners (the plaintiffs), David Maglio. He argued that town and school officials and the other defendants, failed to “do what’s necessary to protect the residents.”

In particular, they didn’t monitor the seismic activity and damage at the houses closely enough and they didn’t halt use of equipment homeowners considered responsible for the damage, said Maglio. His clients were “sacrificed,” he said, to save the project time and money.

Lawyers for the defendants (there were five who made opening statements) argued that the vibrations caused by equipment on the work site were not enough to cause the kind of damage homeowners were claiming.

“The tests showed the vibrations could not have caused the cracks,” said Michael DeSisto, lawyer for the town.

And while the homeowners urged the town to stop using vibratory rollers to compact the soil, the architecture and civil engineering firm for the project (SMMA) refused to warranty its work if vibratory rollers were not used.

Lawyers for the other defendants, including Gilbane, Manafort Brothers and Fleet Construction, all argued that their clients were following industry standards and specifications dictated by SMMA.

Paul Callaghan, lawyer for Gilbane, told the jury the cracks in the Sarah’s Trace houses were not structural and could have been caused by natural settlement of the structures and the earth below. The homeowners have remained in their houses since the initial complaints.

Callaghan also argued that the plaintiffs’ estimated cost to fix the cracks at all three properties – $1.3 million total – was much higher than the $180,000 estimate obtained by defense experts.

On Thursday, testimony will begin. Lawyer Maglio said he plans to call for his first witness Victor Mercurio, superintendent of the East Greenwich schools. On Friday, the jury is scheduled to go on a “view” or site visit.

You can read more about the lawsuit here and here.

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