Church suit trial against contractor gets underway

First Baptist ChurchFirst Baptist Church

Nearly six years after a pipe on Elmer Road in Dorchester blew out and flooded the basement of nearby First Baptist Church at Adams and Ashmont streets, church owners headed to court this week as part of a lawsuit against a Hyde Park construction firm alleging negligence on its part while working on damaged water lines.

The trial began on Monday with jury selection and is expected to last into next week.

The 180-year-old First Baptist Church alleges that P. Gioioso & Sons Inc., the construction firm, was negligent while repairing or replacing water lines along parts of Adams Street, according to Karen MacNutt, the attorney representing the church owners, the First Baptist Society of Dorchester.

The bursting of the pipe on a Sunday night in August 2005 caused up to four feet of water to hit the Ashmont Street church’s basement, parishioners say, leading to $350,000 in damages. The church’s safe, which contained records dating back to 1836, went through the floor; two brand new boilers were ruined; and the organ motor was inundated with water, parishioners say.

The damage was uncovered the following Tuesday and parishioners say they lost the use of their church hall, the heating system through the loss of the two new boilers, and their kitchen and two bathrooms, according to the complaint, which was filed in Suffolk Superior Court in 2007. The owners do not have flood insurance.

The force of the water was so powerful that it lifted a heavy podium off the floor and onto a table, according to Lucia Sudduth, a longtime parishioner. Rugs were soaked, art work was damaged, and the floor needs “major repairs,” the complaint says. The owners of the church have attempted to fix the floor but say it remains a problem. “It’s warped and we’re suspecting mold has formed,” John Palmieri, the church treasurer, told the Reporter. “The floor’s sinking,” added MacNutt, who also serves as a member of a board made up of supporters of the church.

The owners have replaced the boilers, to the tune of $18,000, and also fixed the organ motor, which cost around $5,000, they say. They have attempted to raise funds through the sale of a cookbook.

An attorney for Gioioso & Sons, David Cain of Brown and Black, declined to comment outside the courtroom on Tuesday, citing a company policy against talking about pending litigation. Gioioso & Sons did not return a phone call left with their office on Tuesday.

The company, founded in 1962, typically handles construction projects for public agencies, such as the Boston Water and Sewer Commission and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The commission, according to the complaint, has denied all responsibility for the pipe bursting.

In a brochure found on its website, Gioioso & Sons says it has a reputation as “one of the state’s most desirable contractors” and is a “leader in the utility construction industry.”

In a quote in the brochure, Fred Laskey, MWRA executive director, praises the company, saying they have undertaken 19 projects for the MWRA for a combined value of $126.5 million. “Some of these projects have been large in scope and very complicated and Gioioso has always risen to the challenge,” Laskey said. “We, at MWRA, have been very pleased with the quality and timeliness of Gioioso’s work and consider them a top-flight contractor.”

The company also received “Dorchester’s Little Dig” award from the Fields Corner Civic Association in 2004, and a “Good Neighbor” award in 2006 from the Florida Corridor Neighborhood Association for a Dorchester sewer separation project, according to the brochure.

The company’s website also includes a laudatory quote from Irene McSweeney, director of construction for Boston Water and Sewer Commission. She took the witness stand on Tuesday, laying responsibility for the Adams Street pipe on the company, which was working on a project to replace water mains and put in new storm drains from St. Mark’s Road down to Ashmont Street.

The church’s owners argue that Gioioso & Sons should have monitored the condition of the pipes that would be impacted by their work on Adams Street. “Contractor knew or should have known that failure to take proper care of pipes in the area they were working in could lead to catastrophic failure of both the pipes they were working on and in other pipes in the area of their construction,” MacNutt wrote in the complaint.

The cast-iron pipe that burst was installed in 1926. “That’s not old for a cast-iron pipe,” MacNutt said Tuesday.