Source: The Times-Picayne Greater New Orleans, November 13, 2012
By: Drew Broach
Jefferson Parish has largely blamed the architectural firm Wisznia Associates for the Jefferson Performing Arts Center boondoggle. Now the parish has settled its lawsuit against the company for $1.3 million, although Wisznia did not admit liability.
That $1.3 million is less than the parish paid Wisznia to design the building, which has almost doubled in cost to $50.7 million and is three years behind schedule. But it’s about the best possible deal for the public, considering that Wisznia’s professional liability insurance policy was capped at $1 million and gave its defense counsel first dibs on the payout, said Dennis Phayer, who litigated the case for Jefferson Parish.
“The attorney had to get paid first, and the parish got what was left,” Phayer said, who called the parish’s decision to settle the suit “cold-blooded” and “realistic.” Wisznia’s attorney did not return calls for comment.
The parish sued the architectural firm for “breach of its contractual warranty, negligence and lack of professional skill.” The suit specifically lists 17 design flaws.
The settlement, first signaled by a Nov. 2 motion to dismiss the suit in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna, closes another chapter in the controversial history of the arts center. Since ground was broken at LaSalle Park in Metairie in 2007, the project has been riddled with design problems, construction delays, fire code violations, contract amendments, cost overruns and political infighting. As one parish official recently groused, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome didn’t take this long to build.
Current parish officials, when not panning the decisions of their colleagues and predecessors, fault Wisznia and the builder, J. Caldarera & Co. Caldarera has at times blamed Wisznia and the parish for the project’s shortcomings. And although Wisznia Associates settled with the parish, the architectural firm did not admit liability.
What is clear is that the Parish Council selected Wisznia in 2002 to design the building even though the parish’s technical evaluation committee ranked the company fourth out of five qualified architects competing for the overall job of planning LaSalle Park, according to a 2011 review of the project by the state legislative auditor’s office. The reason: The Parish Council typically goes along with the member in whose district the project lies, which in this case was John Lavarine Jr. He told state auditors that Wisznia was the only firm to contact him regarding the arts center and that he was impressed by the firm’s enthusiasm for the project.
Lavarine left office in 2004. The parish replaced Wisznia as architect in 2007 and sued the firm in 2009. It paid the firm almost $1.9 million in fees, according to the legislative auditor’s report.
Of the $1.3 million settlement, $671,000 comes from Wisznia, said deputy parish attorney Ross Buckley Jr. The remaining $630,000 comes from two Wisznia subcontractors, he said.
The parish was represented in the suit by the Burglass & Tankersley law firm, which has handled several matters relating to the arts center for Jefferson. Parish officials could not produce the bills specifically for the Wisznia litigation but said Jefferson has paid the law firm $688,634 for all arts center matters.
The next step in completing the arts center comes Thursday, when parish officials ask the state Bond Commission to release the latest $6 million for the job. After that, Parish President John Young has said he will work to fashion a “global” solution to address all the construction, legal and fiscal challenges still facing the project.
In the meantime, said Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, Jefferson should never again suffer because it hired a contractor with “errors and omissions” insurance unequal to the cost of the job. In the wake of the Wisznia litigation, he said the council changed its rules. “Basically it requires that E&O coverage meet the scope of the project,” he said.
As for the $1.3 million Wisznia settlement, he said, “It’s unfortunate, but we’ve changed and we’re moving forward.”