By Robert J Romano, JD, LLM, St. John’s University – Rome Campus, Senior Writer
Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the home of the minor league baseball team the Hartford Yard Goats, was again named the best Double-A Ballpark in America by Ballpark Digest in 2021, previously winning the award in 2017 and 2018. However, the legal battle between the city of Hartford and Centerplan Construction Co., one of the original developers of the park, has been anything but award winning.
By way of background, in early 2015 the city of Hartford, then under the leadership of Mayor Pedro Segarra, hired Connecticut based Centerplan and DoNo Hartford LLC, both of which were controlled by developer Robert Landino, to build the 6,120-seat ballpark. The building of this stadium was to be a key part of the planned economic revitalization of the city. Within a year, however, the project was millions over budget and months behind schedule. The developers got a small extension, but by the spring of 2016, it was evident that the park would not be completed in time for the beginning of the upcoming baseball season. In June of 2016, the city, frustrated with the lack of progress, terminated the contract with Centerplan, with a new contractor being hired by Arch Insurance, the company holding the performance bond for the project.
Arch Insurance subsequently filed suit against Centerplan, which prompted Centerplan to file suit against the city of Hartford, setting up a legal battle that continued through the 2019 baseball season. The jury, after a multi-week trial, found Centerplan liable for the cost overruns and delays, and awarded the city of Hartford $335,000 in damages. Centerplan, not satisfied with these findings, petitioned to have the jury’s verdict set aside, while also filing an appeal wherein it raised the following issues:
- Did the trial court err in deciding as a matter of law that, under the parties’ agreements, the city did not breach its agreements with the plaintiffs by terminating Centerplan without affording it an opportunity to cure?
- Did the trial court err in refusing to instruct the jury that, if it found that there was concurrent delay by virtue of the city’s acts or omissions, Centerplan would be entitled to an extension of time and DoNo could not be in default?
- Did the trial court err by directing the jury to award liquidated damages to the city without allowing it to consider offsetting the benefit conferred by the plaintiffs on the city?
- Did the trial court err in discharging the lis pendens filed by DoNo and its counterclaim defendant affiliates, the leaseholders, on the parcels surrounding the ballpark?
Fast-forward to May 2022, the Connecticut Supreme Court, in a unanimous 5-0 decision, overturned the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for a new trial. The Supreme Court found that “because the trial court did not properly construe the agreements and did not present this issue to the jury, the parties, particularly Centerplan, were prevented from developing the record regarding, and the jury was prevented from deciding, not only whether proper notice and an opportunity to cure were provided, but also whether honoring the termination requirements would be futile or whether Centerplan’s breach was incurable.”
The Supreme Court noting that in cases like these, “whether a contract has been breached is a question of fact . . . and that courts lack the authority to make findings of facts or draw conclusions from primary facts found.” The Court went on to state that “in the present case, the trial court determined, before trial and as a matter of law, that the city could not have breached its contract with Centerplan . . .” But, as the Supreme Court patently stated, “we cannot make these determinations as a matter of law.” Therefore, because these questions must be determined by the jury, the Supreme Court had no option but to remand for a new trial.
Interestingly, however, in April of 2021, after years of costly litigation, city of Hartford officials said that they “stood by their decision to fire Centerplan” and that they “did exactly the right thing to protect the taxpayers of Hartford from an irresponsible contractor.” The question remains, however, who is protecting the taxpayers of Hartford from irresponsible politicians?
 Landino maintained that the project was behind schedule because of multiple last-minute design changes ordered by the city of Hartford.
 Centerplan Constr.