Multiplex project manager denounces steel subcontractor in opening statement as Wembley case gets under way

Trial of strength: Ashley Muldoon, <a href=Multiplex’s project manager for Wembley, on his way to the High Court to give evidence on the second day of Multiplex vs Cleveland Bridge." src="" imagecode="111560" />

Trial of strength: Ashley Muldoon, Multiplex’s project manager for Wembley, on his way to the High Court to give evidence on the second day of Multiplex vs Cleveland Bridge.

Multiplex project manager Ashley Muldoon this week slammed Wembley steel subcontractor Cleveland Bridge as "incompetent, unmotivated and devious" as the long-awaited battle between the two firms got under way in the High Court in London.

Muldoon, the first witness to be called, made the comment in his witness statement, adding: "That is a summary of my involvement with CBUK [Cleveland Bridge]." However, he denied that his perception of the Darlington firm had led him to dismiss claims, made as early as 2003, that "late and incomplete designs" provided by Mott Stadium Consortium were leading to

delays, entitling the firm to an extension of time and appropriate compensation.

Muldoon admitted that design delays and changes had caused delays, saying: "There were general design problems, including those with Mott Stadium Consortium."

Muldoon also acknowledged in this respect that Multiplex might launch a professional negligence claim against Mott MacDonald. He said that Multiplex had begun considering this possibility "quite seriously" as early as January 2004.

Muldoon insisted, however, that Cleveland Bridge had a significant responsibility for delays on the steel programme and revealed that Multiplex staff had visited the site of Cleveland Bridge's plant in County Durham to investigate the level of fabrication. He said: "We expected them to work to a programme. They didn't work to a programme, let alone an accelerated one."

The case is expected to last four weeks and is worth about £50m.

The first exchanges between the firms' lawyers centred on why Cleveland Bridge, the original steel subcontractor, had left the site in August 2004. Cleveland Bridge claimed it was forced to quit after a repudiatory breach of contract by Multiplex. The subcontractor added that the subcontractor had been removed as part of an "Armageddon Plan" to cause the firm to "fall over" financially. It claimed that as part of this plan the Australian contractor had reneged on an agreed price for parts of Cleveland Bridge's work.

Hundreds of documents for the case arrive at the Technology and Construction Court

Hundreds of documents for the case arrive at the Technology and Construction Court

First exchanges centred on why Cleveland Bridge had quit

Multiplex denies these claims and countered that Cleveland Bridge had its own secret plan, "Project Trafalgar", to quit the project on the pretence that Multiplex had breached its contract, when the real reason was that it was in financial difficulty.

In a heated exchange on Tuesday, the opening day of the case, Roger Stewart, representing Multiplex, said some of the allegations made by Cleveland Bridge lacked credibility. He said they bore comparison with the "dodgy dossier" the government had produced to substantiate its claim that Iraq was a military threat.

He said Multiplex had "always been willing to abide by the terms of the subcontract" and that Cleveland Bridge had walked off the site after attempting to "use its financial weakness to pressure Multiplex into revising its contract".

Multiplex denied that Cleveland Bridge was entitled to receive payment of £32.66m for its work until 15 February 2004, a figure the subcontractor claims was agreed between the parties at that time. Multiplex said the figure was not final and binding and was agreed "only for cash flow". To back its claim that Cleveland Bridge did have a secret "Project Trafalgar" strategy Multiplex cited notes allegedly made by Matt Stagg, its construction managing director, at a meeting with Multiplex chairman John Roberts, Sheikh Abdullah, head of CBUK's major shareholder the Al Rushaid Group, and Roddy Grant, former CBUK chief executive, on

27 January 2004. Multiplex claimed in court that Stagg had written in this note that Grant had said: "Either we do a deal now or go into adjudication forever" and in brackets Stagg had added "blackmail".

Multiplex also alleged Cleveland Bridge was implementing the public relations aspect of a Project Trafalgar campaign to undermine Multiplex.

Cleveland Bridge lawyer Hugh Tomlinson said Project Trafalgar had never been implemented and dismissed claims that Cleveland Bridge was mounting an unfair public relations campaign. He said Multiplex was running its own public relations campaign and referred the court to an article in the Australian press in which Multiplex's opening statements were quoted.

The case continues.

Court sketch - Sarah Richardson

It’s all end-to-end stuff

“Given the attention this case has attracted,” Multiplex lawyer Roger Stewart glowered at the 40-odd journalists and spectators gathered in the Technology and Construction Court 7 on Tuesday, “it’s a shame we can’t all sit in Wembley to hear it rather than being crammed in here.”

On a small point of order one could suggest that this impossibility has more to do with Multiplex and Cleveland Bridge than with any of the media representatives watching trolley after trolley of evidence being wheeled into the court.

At least the cramped conditions meant it was possible to get a good view of Multiplex Aussie hard man Ashley Muldoon as he took the stand to give a storming performance as first witness. The scourge of Cleveland Bridge is only about 5ft 5in, so it could be difficult to keep track of him in
a venue the size of Wembley, especially with construction materials still lying around.

From the bench, however, Mr Justice Jackson had Muldoon firmly under his control.

“Mr Muldoon, might I remind you, this is an important trial and your end must be recorded,” he commented after 10 minutes of unintelligible muttering. “Can I make this point quite clearly, you must speak slowly and audibly for the stenographer.”

The ticking off was welcomed by all those trying to decipher Muldoon’s hybrid of Aussie slang and formal court speak.

However, to the construction representatives present, including Muldoon, and Cleveland Bridge managing director Brian Rogan, the lawyers’ bumbling attempts to understand their daily lives must have seemed equally strange.

“Mr Stagg makes his notes using one of those electronic pads,” was one less-than enlightened comment from the Cleveland Bridge counsel, while Mr Justice Jackson seemed to struggle to understand the finer points of construction engineering: “The reference you’ve just given me is, ahem, a picture of wheels and cogs,” he said helplessly, after one direction from the legal teams.

It seems, only two days in, the judge has had quite enough of technical terms.

He politely declined an offer of further explanation of Cleveland Bridge’s argument: “I think I might have enough pieces of paper already, thank you.”

Chin up, Rupert, only three weeks to go.