A Richland County jury ruled Thursday that the city of Columbia must pay $1.65 million to Stevens & Wilkinson, a Columbia architectural and engineering firm, for breaking a contract for work it did on a proposed Vista hotel that was never built.
The jury deliberated less than two hours before reaching a unanimous verdict shortly after 3 p.m. at the county courthouse along Main Street, just yards from City Hall, which must now pay the award. An alternate juror who was excused from deliberations also told The State newspaper he would have voted against the city.
The firm got the amount it asked for, even though the city argued the firm was working “on speculation” and did not have a firm contract with city officials.
The jury of eight women and four men had heard a lawyer for the city, Kathleen McDaniel, say in her closing argument that Stevens & Wilkinson’s chairman, Bobby Lyles, was just “a disappointed businessman looking to the government for a bailout, trying to get back some of the money he thought he should have gotten.”
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But the jury also heard Stevens & Wilkinson lawyer Dick Harpootlian say the city had taken its “money and labor” and was trying to “cheat” the firm by not paying it. “A deal’s a deal,” Harpootlian told the jury. In his opening argument, Harpootlian told the jury they would have a chance to “fight City Hall.”
A deal’s a deal.”
Plaintiff attorney Dick Harpootlian
Although Stevens & Wilkinson filed suit against the city in 2005, numerous appeals, including one to the S.C. Supreme Court, delayed a trial by jury until this week.
Harpootlian said that with years of interest, the city might owe Stevens and Wilkinson “another million or two,” bringing the total possible recovery amount to $3.65 million.
McDaniel said after the verdict that the city has 10 days to file a motion to appeal. Whether to appeal will be up to City Council, she said.
Harpootlian said: “I fully expect the city to appeal. But we are much, much closer to the end than we were last week.”
The city’s in-house attorney, Teresa Knox, sat through the trial. She declined comment as she left, telling a reporter that city officials do not comment on pending litigation.
The long-running legal wrangle concerned a disputed payment for work that Stevens & Wilkinson and a team of professional engineers and architects did for a proposed city-funded, 300-room hotel in downtown Columbia’s Vista district that would serve the Midlands’ convention center.
Although the city retained Stevens & Wilkinson in mid-2003 to do detailed design and planning work for the publicly funded hotel, the city dropped the firm with little notice in late March 2004, it argued.
The city eventually chose another developer to build a smaller hotel largely with private money. That developer was Greenville’s Bo Aughtry, who was working with a group of private investors, some from Columbia, including not-yet-mayor Steve Benjamin. The hotel is the Hilton Columbia Center.
Although the city paid Stevens & Wilkinson $650,000 for work done from July to mid-October 2003, the dispute was over an additional 22 weeks of architectural design and planning work that the firm and its various subcontractors did from mid-October 2003 to the end of March 2004.
Plaintiff’s documents and evidence introduced at trial showed the firm had told the city it was charging $75,000 a week for their work beyond mid-October. Evidence showed that during the next 22 weeks, Stevens & Wilkinson had 40-50 professionals working on the project, churning out increasingly detailed plans. Each week, the architects met with city officials, updating them on the progress.
Lawyers for the city, meanwhile, offered documents and put up witnesses who said the firm was working during those 22 weeks on speculation. When the proposed hotel wasn’t given a go-ahead, the firm incurred a loss for a risk it knowingly undertook, and for which the city shouldn’t have to pay, they argued.
Later, Lyles reacted to McDaniel’s description of him as a “disappointed businessman looking to the government for a bailout.”
Bobby Lyles IS A “disappointed businessman looking to the government for a bailout.”
City attorney Kathleen McDaniel
“I didn’t like that. I love this city. I wanted to set it right,” said Lyles, a native Columbian whose firm has worked on such projects as the downtown Marriott and the State House renovation.
“I was 62 when this started, and I’m 74 now. It’s been a long time,” said Lyles, who had sat through the trial with his wife of 28 years, Sally.
The verdict came on the fourth day of a trial that began Monday in the Richland County Courthouse.
Outside the courtroom, Harpootlian told reporters that a contract between the city and Stevens & Wilkinson in July 2003 left room for disagreement.
“Both sides were kind of sloppy as to how they went through this process of contracting,” Harpootlian said. “Both sides thought the hotel was going to be built, so they weren’t really concerned about dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s.”
But the jury had ample evidence – in the form of testimony by witnesses and contemporaneous documents – that numerous city officials back in 2003 and 2004 knew full well that Stevens & Wilkinson’s team was hard at work on the project during those 22 weeks and expected to be paid $75,000 a week for that work, Harpootlian said.
“We have a number of subcontrators we owe money to,” Harpootlian said. “This isn’t about winning the lottery or making money – it’s about the cost of money my client has already expended.”
In addition to the contract dispute, the trial also focused attention on the behind-the-scenes interplay of politicians and businesspeople in big projects where millions of dollars are in play.
For example, Benjamin’s name surfaced during the trial as a person who had been bond attorney with the Stevens & Wilkinson team, then unexpectedly joined the Aughtry team that later got the contract.
However, Benjamin, who became mayor in 2010, was mentioned only in passing by Harpootlian in his closing statement to the jury, along with some other participants in the process to build a hotel. The only thing the jury members should concern themselves with was the contract’s terms, and whether the city lived up to those terms, Harpootlian told them.
State Judge Alison Lee presided.