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'This is an unfortunate situation' | Hawthorne Lane Bridge contractor sues city of Charlotte for $115 million

The city of Charlotte had long blamed its contractor for extensive delays on the Hawthorne Lane Bridge replacement and the CityLYNX Gold Line extension.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The contractor behind the Hawthorne Lane Bridge and CityLYNX Gold Line Phase 2 project is suing the city of Charlotte for $115 million, according to a lawsuit recently filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

Johnson Brothers Corporation's complaint accuses the city of breach of contract, misrepresentation and unjust enrichment, among other things. Its parent company, Southland Holdings, reports the city has refused to acknowledge and pay the general contractor more than $100 million in "equitable adjustments, plus an extension of time."

"Though Johnson Bros. Corporation has been requesting that the city meet to discuss a reasonable resolution, the city's most recent response was that it had no further intention of meeting or negotiating an amicable resolution of the claims," Southland Holdings director of corporate processes and contract management Imad Mohammed told WCNC Charlotte. "As a result, Johnson Bros. Corporation had no alternative but to file a lawsuit against the city of Charlotte in an effort to obtain payment in full for Johnson Bros. and its subcontractors. This is an unfortunate situation."

The project in question suffered extensive delays, frustrating drivers, businesses and neighbors alike and became the butt of jokes, before re-opening in December 2020. City leaders repeatedly placed blame on the contractor, which submitted the low bid of $89 million in 2016.

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In its lawsuit, Johnson Bros. Corporation claims the city limited access to the work site, poorly planned the project and made numerous changes that increased costs and time and then withheld payments.

"Johnson Bros. Corporation and its team of subcontractors have delivered to the City a world-class (and award-winning) project," Mohammed went on to say. "All Johnson Bros. is requesting is fair and reasonable payment for the cost of the work performed per the terms of the contract documents. There should be no need for any lawsuit or any expenditure of taxpayer money defending a lawsuit. Despite the city's recent response, Johnson Bros. Corporation believes that this dispute is one that can, and should, be resolved without a drawn-out legal battle that would ultimately cost even more money and time for all parties involved. However, Johnson Bros. Corporation will take any and all steps to preserve its interests and those of its subcontractors that performed work for the benefit of the city and its residents."

READ: Johnson Brothers Corporation's complaint document

Phase 2 of the Gold Line project was to extend the streetcar route by more than two miles and included the replacement of the Hawthorne Lane Bridge. The lawsuit accuses the city of limiting access to the work site by failing to abide by detailed traffic control plans. Those plans, according to the contractor, were aimed at facilitating "efficient construction" and shortening the construction time "to reduce the costs of the project." 

According to the complaint, the plans allowed for complete traffic closures and the contract allowed for work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, aside from specific holidays and peak hour restrictions for portions of the project.

"Contrary to the traffic control plans provided in the contract and as represented by the city, after issuing the notice to proceed, the city mandated that JBC maintain at least one lane of 'through traffic' in each direction for nearly every work segment ... " the lawsuit states. "Accordingly, JBC encountered massive alterations to the original plans and specifications and major changes to the contracted scope of work that completely prevented JBC and its subcontractors from adhering to the provided traffic control plans, thereby materially and drastically changing the character and scope of the Project as represented by the City at the time of bid."

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The company went on to say the city also limited work in certain areas to only nights and weekends and mandated multiple special schedules for sporting and special events.

Johnson Bros. Corporation also outlined "numerous conflicts with existing utilities" that were not detailed in the original plans, which led to delays and increased costs. In addition, the contractor documented mandated changes by the city that resulted in more work and costs.

"The city's original plans were also inaccurate, deficient, and inadequate in numerous ways that required sweeping design changes and plan revisions through the project ... " the lawsuit said. "These sweeping design and plan changes, as well as the city's untimeliness in addressing these issues as they arose, coupled with material change in traffic control plans, further adversely impacted the progress of the work and increased the costs and time of the project."

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During the construction of the Hawthorne Lane Bridge, the city accused the contractor of ordering the wrong girders, which led to significant delays. In its lawsuit, Johnson Bros. Corporation accused the city of numerous design "errors, omissions, and discrepancies" of several bridge-related supports, including girders.

"Despite all the above issues, JBC and an independent engineering firm worked together to find viable solutions and made proposals to the city to allow the use of the originally fabricated girders and complete an acceptable bridge and adjacent roadway profile," the complaint states. "Instead, the city chose to disregard the proposals, refused to analyze a time and cost-effective solution, and mandated a full 'remove and replace' option. While JBC performed additional and extra work to solve issues caused by errors and omissions in the design plans that the city provided, the city refused to compensate JBC for this extra work or issue any time extension."

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According to the lawsuit, the company and the city have been at odds over payment since early 2018. The complaint also details dozens of undisputed pay applications the city paid late, "sometimes as long as a year out from when they were due." Some had yet to be paid at the time of filing, according to the lawsuit. Johnson Bros. Corporation also claims the city interfered with the project and added extra-contractual work, issuing punch lists that included more than 1,000 items.

Just last week, the assistant clerk of court granted the city's motion for an extension of time to file an answer to the complaint, which was served on March 8.

"The city does not publicly comment on pending litigation," media relations manager Lawrence Corley III wrote in an email to WCNC Charlotte.

The timing of the lawsuit is especially challenging for the city. CATS, which operates the Gold Line, revealed last week the city will likely need to come up with around $25 million to make rail car repairs after a previously undisclosed Blue Line derailment last year. That’s twice what the transit agency budgeted.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing money@wcnc.com.

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