Keller ISD files lawsuit over foundation flaws at school

The growing cracks don't make the building unsafe but might be an indication of problems to come in the 11-year-old Trinity Meadows Intermediate School building
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The growing cracks don't make the building unsafe but might be an indication of problems to come in the 11-year-old Trinity Meadows Intermediate School building

Keller Citizen

Foundation flaws at center of lawsuit filed by Keller school district

By Sandra Engelland

September 29, 2017 09:27 AM

It was a few years ago when maintenance workers and staff at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School began to notice problems.

Cracks in the walls. Doors that would stick. Heaving sidewalks and widening gaps and cracks in visible parts of the concrete slab.

Now, 11 years after the school in the Keller district opened in north Fort Worth, officials say the problems are much worse than the structure’s age and have filed a lawsuit against the firms that designed and built the $23 million school.

The culprit, according to the lawsuit, is a faulty foundation.

No extensive repairs have been required to date at Trinity Meadows, said Hudson Huff, director of facilities services for the Keller school district. But some work may be needed in the next five years, Huff said.

Officials say it was necessary to file a suit to protect the school district’s interests.

At Trinity Meadows, district officials at first thought the cracks were just cosmetic, on par with what you’d see in a building constructed in 2005 and 2006 in an area prone to the heaving and contracting of heavy clay soils.

“We always anticipate that we will see some movement,” Huff said “To say there will be a crack or two is something we anticipate. The issue became the number of cracks and the width of the cracks.”

Said Amanda Bigbee, the school district’s in-house attorney: “The problems have gotten worse in the last year and escalated within the last few months.”

An independent engineering firm has done an initial assessment of the damage, and officials say it poses no safety threat to students or staff.

“It’s a building maintenance issue rather than a building occupancy issue,” Huff said.

Lawsuit filed in July

Bigbee said the reason district officials decided to file a suit July 12 in Tarrant County District Court is that the window for legal action was about to close.

“We were going to lose our right to file a suit if we didn’t file it quickly,” Bigbee said.

In Texas, building owners have a 10-year warranty against significant structural defects. Bigbee said the school district can get a two-year extension if officials can prove they gave the firms written notice of the problems within the first 10 years.

Rodger Mallison

In the lawsuit, officials name as defendants Fort Worth architecture firm Hahnfeld, Hoffer & Stanford; a structural engineering firm, MYD Structural Engineers in Hurst; and Steele & Freeman, a Fort Worth construction company.

The suit, which is being litigated by Fort Worth law firm Brackett & Ellis, alleges negligence, breach of warranty and breach of contract by the defendants and seeks the cost of repairs and attorney fees. The total bill may exceed $1 million, according to the court filing.

In an Aug. 11 amendment to the original petition, James Drebelbis, a Dallas forensic structural engineer, submitted an opinion on behalf of Keller schools stating that MYD Structural Engineers designed a foundation system that allowed the intrusion of water underneath the slab, which caused the heaving of soils that led to the cracks in walls, floors and joints, displaced ceiling tiles, sticking doors and other problems..

And even though they filed a suit, Keller district officials are hopeful that they come to a resolution with the firms.

“... The district felt that a lawsuit was necessary to protect the district’s interests,” Tom Myers, the Brackett & Ellis attorney for Keller schools, said in a email. “... We hope an amicable resolution of the matter will be possible, and will see as the case develops.”

Firms defend their work

Attorneys representing the firms named in the suit contend that there are no problems associated with the construction of the school.

Hahnfeld, Hoffer & Stanford attorney Hollye Fisk of Dallas and Steele & Freeman attorney Christian Ellis of Fort Worth each filed general denials of the school district’s claims.

Ellis said he has been cooperating with Keller district officials in trying to discover the cause of the issues at Trinity Meadows.

“Right now, the cause appears to be soil movement,” Ellis said. “But Steele & Freeman’s investigation has revealed no problems with the construction of the school. The school was built correctly.”

The attorneys for MYD Structural Engineers, Shawn Phelan and Angela Coffey of the Dallas law firm Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, filed an answer with a general denial of the claims and additional defense statements. They said the engineers did not cause any damages, they did not control the parties involved, and the statute of limitations had passed.

A person who declined to give his name when he answered the phone listed for MYD Structural Engineers said the company was no longer in business. According to the Texas Board of Professional Engineers website, the company’s registration with the Texas Board of Professional Engineers is set to expire Sept. 30 and is no longer valid due to inactivity and nonpayment of dues.

Hahnfeld, Hoffer & Stanford, which has filed a general denial of claims, has designed many Keller district schools, including Central High School, Timberview Middle School, Chisholm Trail Intermediate School and Basswood, Bluebonnet and Liberty elementary schools.

Rodger Mallison

The architecture firm also designed Parkwood Hill Intermediate, South Keller Intermediate (now the Keller Center for Advanced Learning) and Trinity Meadows. Those three campuses have almost identical layouts because they were the district prototype for intermediate schools in the early to mid-2000s, Keller’s building boom period.

Steele & Freeman has been “construction manager at risk” on almost every new Keller district school constructed in the last 20 years.

Lawsuits are not common

With hundreds of school construction projects funded by billions in taxpayer dollars completed every year in Texas, cases of school districts suing design teams and contractors are relatively rare, said David Hansen, an Austin attorney and shareholder with Eichelbaum Wardell Hansen Powell & Mehl.

“It’s not something school districts go into lightly,” said Hansen, who specializes in school district cases related to construction and real estate.

Most architects and construction firms work well with district officials when fixes are minor, Hansen said.

“When you have a million-dollar problem, and they pose a $15,000 solution, they give the appearance of trying to work with you, but that won’t really remedy the issue,” he said.

The lawsuits arise in situations where major repairs are involved.

In June 2014, Grand Prairie school district officials filed a motion to petition to get depositions from architects and a structural engineer who had worked on Reagan Middle School and Juan Seguin Elementary.

At issue was damage to “virtually the entire below slab plumbing drainage system at the schools” after the foundations shifted due to expanding and heaving soils, according to the court filing. At the time of the original filing, officials said they had spent about $4 million to repair the problems.

In March, attorneys for the Grand Prairie school district filed a “non-suit without prejudice,” which allows the district the right to sue in the future.

Sam Buchmeyer, spokesman for Grand Prairie schools, said last month that since the issue involves “pending litigation,” district officials are not at liberty to discuss it. At the time of the original filing, officials said they spent about $4 million to repair the problems.

Perhaps the highest-profile case involving construction defects came with the $60 million stadium in the Allen school district.

The 18,000-seat stadium became a national story when it opened in 2012. But when it was discovered that it had structural defects, the architecture and construction management firms that designed and built the stadium paid millions for the repair work to be completed, which resulted in the stadium being closed for the 2014 football season.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Sandra J. Engelland: 817-390-7323, @SandraEngelland