Washington State wins $57m in damages over Bertha’s breakdown

A court in Washington State has awarded the state’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) $57m in damages over delays on a tunnel under Seattle after "Bertha", the biggest tunnel-boring machine in the world at the time, broke down in 2013.

A main factor in the case was who bore the blame for the breakdown, with the contractors Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), a joint venture of Dragados USA and Tutor Perini, blaming an unexpected encounter with a steel pipe for damaging the machine.
A jury at Thurston County District Court on Friday, 13 December found in favour of the state of Washington, however, with the court awarding the state the entire sum requested, AP reports, citing local media. 

Washington governor Jay Inslee and WSDOT welcomed the decision on Friday. "We never wavered from our position that it was always the contractor’s responsibility to fix the tunnelling machine and that taxpayers should not pay the repair bill," a joint statement said. "We are grateful the jury agreed and awarded damages to taxpayers for a tunnel delivered three years behind schedule." 

Bertha was 53ft in diameter, making it the world’s largest at the time. Its failure required STP to remove the head from the tunnel, repair cracked main gears and broken bearing seals (see further reading, below).

After the verdict, contractor Tutor Perini issued a statement saying it was disappointed with the decision and would appeal. 

It noted that the verdict conflicted with an independent Dispute Review Board finding that the steel pipe casing unexpectedly encountered by Bertha constituted a "differing site condition."

The two sides argued about whether the state had given notice of the buried pipe’s location, whether STP ought to have known it was there, whether an 8-inch pipe would have been sufficient to break the boring machine, and whether the machine was powerful enough to drill through Seattle’s heavy soil.

The $3.2bn project was completed in February of this year.

Image: Bertha in action (Washington State Department of Transportation)

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