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Editorial: Blame game

Our cover story this week focuses on a nearly two-year-old tragedy that continues to have major implications for Cumberland County engineering firm Gannett Fleming Inc.

Our cover story this week focuses on a nearly two-year-old tragedy that continues to have major implications for Cumberland County engineering firm Gannett Fleming Inc.

The business, which has a sterling reputation in its industry and in this community, was pulled into a morass of litigation and finger-pointing after a 39-year-old woman was killed in a Boston tunnel in 2006. Gannett Fleming was one of dozens of firms from around the country involved in Boston's Big Dig project. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ruled Gannett Fleming was partially to blame for the accident because it didn't ensure that the right glue was used to hang the tunnel's ceiling tiles. A host of other firms were fingered for their roles in the ceiling matter, too.

From our vantage point, Gannett Fleming and its fellow engineers and contractors have been unfairly targeted. In the NTSB's rush to assign blame and quell the political tumult surrounding the accident, it latched on to the easiest piece of a complex puzzle: the type of epoxy used in the project. It's absurd that the NTSB would spend months combing through the details of such a complex case only to conclude the accident was caused by something as simple as an adhesive. The broader issue here was concept and design, but focusing on that big picture would have made the NTSB's blame game a lot harder to play.

In the meantime, dozens of companies have paid settlements totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Dozens of professional reputations have been tarnished in the name of swift justice.

To its credit, Gannett Fleming has refused to bow to public pressure. Documents show the firm pushed hard to use a more stable means of securing the mammoth ceiling tiles used in the project. That recommendation was rejected.

Ideally, Gannett Fleming will be exonerated in these suits, but victory seems unlikely. We operate in a blame-centered society. Justly or not, someone has to play the scapegoat.

On a practical level, these types of over-the-top lawsuits end up costing every business. In this era of hyper-litigation, companies must shell out for insurance coverage to safeguard against lawsuits and cover potentially crippling payouts. Plus, they often end up paying higher prices to their suppliers because those firms have to pay for defensive measures of their own.

We're in favor of holding people and businesses accountable for wrongdoing, but the Boston tunnel accident proves that the process can go too far.

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