The architectural firm that designed the Freeman Justice Center in Key West has agreed to pay Monroe County $700,000 as part of a legal settlement over engineering woes with the courthouse, attorneys said Thursday.
Monroe County sued architect Jose Gonzalez, whom it fired in October 2005 amid accusations of mismanagement and safety issues.
The civil lawsuit in circuit court was filed in 2008. Specifically, the county alleged breach of contract and negligence in its lawsuit, citing design flaws such as acoustic issues in the courtrooms, flooring issues, air conditioner placement and other flaws, said Assistant Monroe County Attorney Nat Cassel.
The settlement was actually breached in September, but attorneys didn't finalize the agreement until this week. "I would only say that our client strongly contested the allegations made by Monroe County," said Gonzalez attorney Joseph Downs of Miami. "It's always better result when a case gets settled."
The firm did not make any admission of any liability or legal responsibility as part of the settlement, which is typical in such agreements, Cassel said.
The county's relationship with Gonzalez actually dates to 1993 when it inked its contract with the firm, Cassel said.
The revamped Key West state courthouse originally was to cost $13.8 million, but overruns and security issues spiked the final cost to $18.1 million.
Meanwhile, another legal row over a final $380,000 payment to two companies involved in the construction -- Tower Group Inc. or Baron Manufacturing, a subcontractor the company hired to store some wooden trim used in the new courthouse -- was also settled out of court in 2012.
The county never disputed the amount owed, just which company it should pay. It was agreed that the county would pay Tower Group Inc., which in turn paid Baron Manufacturing.
Beyond legal woes, the county just completed this week about $900,000 in renovations to the 5-year-old Freeman Justice Center that included the final touches on the newly redesigned and enlarged lobby.
The lobby issue was not part of the county's suit with Gonzalez, but illustrates the headaches the county has had getting the new courthouse in working order.
The new lobby is about three times its old size with additional metal detectors. Because of the size of the old lobby, lines of customers often extended into the parking lot, an uncomfortable wait for workers and jurors in hot or rainy weather.
Originally, the lobby was to be on the second floor of the courthouse, but the 9/11 attacks changed security requirements, which illustrates how long the county has been planning the new building, Cassel said.
The county also completed last year the new Monroe County Drug Court headquarters in the recently remodeled parking lot in the rear of the courthouse. It features state-of-the-art drug testing and urinalysis machines.
Trial Court Administrator Holly Elomina was all smiles Friday as workers were putting the finishing touches on the new lobby.
"We have a few more things as far as paint here and there, but it's pretty much wrapped as of yesterday (Thursday)," Elomina said. "This new construction showed us that we needed a lobby this size from the beginning, and the court security officers are beyond thrilled. Now they have a functional work space to secure our building."