DETROIT — A Detroit judge was within his rights to send the owner of the Ambassador Bridge to jail for disregarding court orders but should have made it clear what steps the 84-year-old billionaire businessman could take to win his freedom, an appeals court ruled Monday.
The Michigan Court of Appeals said the Detroit judge should set out in detail what actions Manuel "Matty" Moroun needs to take to purge the contempt ruling.
On Jan. 12, Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards ordered Moroun and Detroit International Bridge Co. President Dan Stamper, 62, to jail for repeatedly failing to follow his 2010 order to work with the state and complete a redevelopment project on the Detroit side of the bridge to Windsor, Ontario.
The next day, the appeals court ordered them freed pending its ruling.
"Because the contempt order does not provide the appellants with the 'keys to the jailhouse,' we vacate that portion of the trial court's contempt order which continues incarceration until (the bridge company) has 'fully complied and remand the case to the trial court," wrote Judge Kirsten Kelly.
Judges Kurtis Wilder and Karen Fort Hood issued separate opinions in which they agreed in part and dissented in part.
The decision sends the case back to Edwards, who has scheduled a hearing for Thursday.
The Gateway Project is supposed to connect the international bridge to area interstates and relieve truck congestion on residential streets. But eight years after construction began, the company and the Michigan Department of Transportation can't agree on how to finish the job.
Sidestepping the question of the jailings, the bridge company issued a statement Monday saying it was "pleased with the recognition" by the appeals court that the road construction project "must be completed."
The statement said it is "very clear" that the state and not the bridge company is holding up the work.
Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Cranson said it was "disingenuous" of the bridge company to say the state has held up the work.
"We're pleased that three judges said that Judge Edwards had the authority to impose the sanctions that he did," Cranson said. "We know now that he'll come up with some specific things for them to do or be sanctioned again. We just want them to comply with the 2004 contract. That's all we're asking."
The Ambassador Bridge is a major commercial link between Canada and the U.S., and the $230 million Gateway Project, which was supposed to be finished by 2008, is intended to get trucks off neighborhood streets on the U.S. side and directly onto interstates. In November, Edwards declared the bridge's owners in contempt of court for failing to finish work on the project.
Moroun and his company also are involved in a bitter dispute and advertising war against Gov. Rick Snyder and others who back a proposal to build a separate bridge to Canada. Moroun wants to add a span of his own.
In her dissent, Fort Hood said she would have upheld the jailing of Moroun and Stamper. In his dissent, Wilder said he would have overturned the jailings on the grounds that the bridge company and not Moroun and Stamper were found in contempt.
Associated Press reporter Tim Martin in Lansing contributed to this story.
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