Horizontal projects (public roadway projects and other infrastructure improvements, etc.) often require the identification and relocation of existing underground utilities. The underground utility company / owner is typically notified of the project (and the plans for the project) so that it can identify and relocate existing utilities if they interfere with the project’s plans.
The recent case of Florida Power & Light Co. v. Russell Engineering, Inc., 96 So.3d 1016 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), dealt with a utility company that did not properly locate an underground utility. This meant that the contractor installing underground drainage piping had to incur additional costs because the existing utility interfered with the planned path of the drainage piping.
The public owner assigned its rights against the utility company to the contractor that installed the drainage piping to recoup the additional costs. The utility company argued that under Florida statutory law (particularly Florida Statute sections 337.403 and 337.404) the public owner has an exclusive remedy of requiring the owner of the interfering utility to relocate or remove the utility before it can legally incur any damages. The trial court disagreed and damages were awarded to the contractor. On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling focusing on the following italicized language in section 337.403:
“(1) Whenever it shall become necessary for the authority to remove or relocate any utility as provided in the preceding section, the [utility company] shall be given notice of such removal or relocation and an order requiring the payment of the cost thereof, and shall be given reasonable time, which shall not be less than 20 nor more than 30 days, in which to appear before the authority to contest the reasonableness of the order . . . .”
The Fourth District found that this language was important because in the instant case it was not necessary for the existing, interfering underground utility to be removed or relocated because the contractor simply worked around the utility resulting in its costs to increase.
This case supports a negligence argument against a utility owner in the event additional costs are incurred due to the utility company failing to property locate an existing utility. (This was the situation in the discussed case because the drainage piping was simply redesigned to bypass the interfering, existing utility.) However, it would seem that a public owner and contractor would have to work around the existing utility (through a redesign, etc.). On the other hand, if the existing utility could not be worked around, then the statutory procedures set forth in sections 337.403 and 337.404 (not discussed in this posting) would apply.
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