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Aaron Dean, attorney for Comstock Construction, holds a copy of the jury verdict awarding his clients almost $1.4 million Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, in front of the Heritage Center in Bismarck. Comstock and the state clashed over the construction contract for the museum's recent expansion. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Jury awards construction firm nearly $1.4 million in Heritage Center dispute

BISMARCK — A jury awarded a Wahpeton, N.D., construction firm nearly $1.4 million Wednesday, Nov. 15, after finding that the State Historical Society of North Dakota breached its contract to expand the Heritage Center.

The verdict capped a seven-day trial at the Burleigh County Courthouse over the museum’s recent $51.7 million, 97,000-square-foot expansion adjacent to the state Capitol in Bismarck. The jury found that the historical society failed to pay the balance of the contract and for extra work to Comstock Construction, the project’s general contractor.

Michael Comstock, an owner of the firm, said it was unfortunate the dispute resulted in a legal battle but expressed relief that the verdict provided some “closure.” Comstock’s attorney Aaron Dean thanked members of the jury for their diligence.

“We’re very proud of the building that was built,” he said.

After the verdict was reached, the State Historical Board scheduled a special meeting for Thursday morning regarding the “expansion lawsuit.”

Attorneys for both sides made their closing arguments to the jury Wednesday morning before they began deliberating just before noon.

Comstock sued the state in March 2016, alleging the State Historical Society breached its contract by improperly withholding payment. The company also said it was provided inadequate plans to support hefty exterior limestone panels, causing damages, delays and safety issues.

Comstock’s claims had totaled more than $2 million, but that was reduced to almost $1.8 million. The jury ultimately awarded $1,395,264, according to a copy of the verdict Dean provided.

The state’s attorney Peter Zuger argued Comstock always had other options to anchor the panels and said the state isn’t responsible for the contractor’s mistakes.

Zuger added that there are other issues that still need to be fixed on the expansion, such as cracked concrete in the parking lot. The museum held a grand opening for the expansion in November 2014, after what the state described as “many months” of delays.

“The state wants to pay Comstock,” Zuger said. “The state wants a project that is finished. It hasn’t gotten that.”

In 2009, lawmakers set aside $39.7 million in state general funds and authorized $12 million in federal or special funds to be raised by the State Historical Society for the project. Comstock signed a $22.2 million contract in 2010 to serve as the project’s general contractor.

Zuger said policy from the state attorney general’s office prevented him from commenting on the case. State officials — Historical Society Director Claudia Berg and Facility Management Director John Boyle — couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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