Obscured in a seemingly trivial financial dispute between the contractor for the collapsed bridge at Florida International University, Munilla Construction Management (MCM), and a former subcontractor is evidence of another collapse at an MCM job site in 2014, which caused work to stop for weeks due to unsafe conditions.
The story is contained in hundreds of documents — including depositions, expert witness testimony, and a final judgment in favor of the subcontractor. While it is not unusual for a large company to face a lawsuit or lawsuits — and the financial stakes of the court battle were minimal — there is at least one parallel: what an attorney for the plaintiff called a “catastrophic failure,” in this case the collapse of several critical retaining walls that MCM installed.
Late in the afternoon on Jan. 31, 2014, temporary retaining walls at an MCM bridge reconstruction site in Miami failed in quick succession, causing a cave-in under a water main located just feet from Red Road, also known as State Road 823, according to transcripts from the trial. The collapse left the pipe that supplies water to most of Hialeah totally exposed. Workers who were excavating a trench at the time moved out of the way, and no one was injured.
“Luck was with us,” said Dime Morales, a project manager for the subcontracted crew on the scene. Morales told the Miami Herald he thinks many people could have been injured, and maybe even died that day if events had unfolded slightly differently. “If something would have happened to the water main, with all of the water pressure, you wouldn’t know how much of the road it would have taken with it,” he said. The pressurized torrent from a burst water main could have collapsed the nearby road, he said, threatening his crew and those passing by in traffic.
The Red Road bridge reconstruction project was a $13.5 million contract awarded to MCM by the Florida Department of Transportation in 2012 and involved adding lanes and transferring the water main from above to below ground where it crossed the canal. MCM subcontracted the excavation and work on the water main to Southeastern Engineering Contractors (SEC), the company Morales and his crew worked for.
After the collapse, SEC halted work, citing unsafe conditions and requesting that the job site be inspected and the retaining walls redesigned and rebuilt. But rather than fix the retaining wall, court records show, MCM terminated its contract with SEC and refused to pay the subcontractor. SEC had failed to complete the job, MCM argued.
SEC sued MCM for financial loss. The subcontractor won the wrongful termination case in 2017 and was awarded a judgment of $143,512.09 to cover project expenses. Underpinning the decision was Voluntary Resolution Judge Bruce Alexander’s determination — based mostly on testimony — that the January 2014 collapse created a job site too unsafe for SEC to complete the contracted tasks.
MCM has filed a motion to appeal, arguing that SEC could have moved forward with other parts of the project. MCM could not be reached for comment, but court records indicate the company denies total fault in the collapse and blames external factors.
Various exhibits and testimony from both sides confirm that MCM installed the faulty retaining walls between the end of December 2013 and the end of January 2014. They were “sheet piles” — a type of retaining wall where two sheets of z-crimped steel are driven deep into the ground parallel to one another. They are designed to hold back the earth as the material between them is excavated, creating a trench.
Driving them deep into the ground, generally twice the depth of the planned trench, keeps the sheets upright. Adequate depth prevents the pressure from the soil outside of the sheet pile from collapsing inward when the earth between the two sheets is removed, according to Luis Prieto, professor of engineering and expert witness brought by SEC to the non-jury trial last year.
“There are many things that can go wrong” in the sheet pile process, according to Prieto. Calculating the appropriate depth to sink a sheet pile is a sophisticated calculation based on soil type and other factors, he said. And the machinery used to hammer the sheet into the ground must be calibrated to exactly the right vibration frequency. MCM’s sheet pile methodology was not up to industry standard, he testified at the trial.
“It didn’t have the depth that it should have had,” Morales said. He said he realized MCM’s sheet piles were too small, and thus too shallow, only when they were being removed after the collapse.
The Red Road sheet pile plans were designed to industry standard, according to court records. But MCM “did not conform to the required design in its provision of sheet piling and the temporary sheet pile installation.”
Getting it right requires experience, Prieto said, “so the project manager has to have many years of doing the same job.” But across the country, contractors are struggling to find experienced project managers and fill other skilled positions on job sites, according to several recent surveys, including one by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Morales, speaking for himself and not the company, said: “They [MCM] didn’t do the job that they were supposed to do. Everyone that was working in that area was at risk.” SEC representatives declined to comment.
Later in 2014, MCM was hit with $32,300 in fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for workplace safety violations at the Red Road site.