Michigan court rejects Moroun bridge appeal

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Court of Appeals on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun seeking to block construction of the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge that will also connect Detroit and Windsor.

While another appeal is possible, Gov. Rick Snyder praised the decision in a case that has loomed over the “once-in-generation infrastructure project” and said he is looking forward to attending a bridge groundbreaking ceremony this summer.

A three-judge panel upheld a Court of Claims ruling that several Moroun-owned companies missed a one-year statute of limitations for claims against the state by failing to file a timely notice of intent to sue Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The Detroit International Bridge Co. and other Moroun firms sued in December 2016 after the state made “good faith offers” to purchase land within the footprint of the new bridge and warned it could pursue a “condemnation case” if it was unable to come to an agreement with affected property owners.

But the Moroun firms should have noticed the state within one year of a 2012 crossing agreement between Michigan and Canada, the Court of Appeals ruled.

“This is because when the crossing agreement was signed it was apparent that MDOT would need to acquire the properties located within the Bridge’s footprint,” Judges Douglas Shapiro, Michael Kelly and Colleen O’Brien said in the unanimous decision.

A spokesman and attorneys representing the Moroun firms in the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment or confirm whether they will appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. The state’s highest court in February denied their request to hear the case prior to any decision by the Court of Appeals.

Moroun company attorneys have filed lawsuits attempting to derail the Gordie Howe crossing, a public-private partnership project that will compete for tolls with the Ambassador Bridge. The Moroun family wants to twin its aging span, which opened to the public in 1929, but has only won Canadian approval to replace the Ambassador with a newer model.

The Court of Appeals panel cited other litigation as evidence that Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company was aware of its claims 2012 and should have sued sooner.

“For example, in federal litigation, the DIBC indicated that it, among others, owned many of the properties in the project’s footprint. The DIBC also stated that it, among others, was in the process of expanding the Ambassador Bridge and that construction of the Bridge would infringe on the DIBC’s franchise rights,” the ruling said.

The federal complaint specifically referred to the 2012 crossing agreement, the state Court of Appeals panel said, showing the Moroun firms were aware of the potential financial and business interests that could be impacted by the new crossing.

Officials with the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority said last month that nearly 95 percent of the property needed for the Gordie Howe International Bridge project has been acquired, and the span remains on track for construction to begin this year.

State officials last year sued the Detroit International Bridge Co. in an attempt to acquire roughly 20 parcels of land in Delray near the proposed span.

That land condemnation case is pending in Wayne County Circuit Court, but the parcels are “not critical to getting shovels in the ground,” said Andy Doctoroff, a senior Snyder adviser and the governor’s point person on the bridge project.

The state anticipates breaking ground on the Gordie Howe bridge in the near future, and there will be “significant, meaningful construction activity this summer,” Doctoroff said.

Moroun companies have argued they did not have grounds to sue the state in 2012 because they had not experienced any actual harm at that time. Attorneys have also argued the one-year statute of limitations for lawsuits against the state does not bar their request for declaratory and injunctive relief. The Court of Appeals panel rejected both arguments.

In October, Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert Colombo Jr. declared Snyder’s deal with Canada to construct the bridge was legal.

Tuesday’s ruling is the latest in a series of cases “in which challenges to the bridge project have been squarely rejected,” Doctoroff said. The decision “underscores the fact that this project is moving forward, and there’s nothing stopping it.”