Lawsuits just starting over Minnesota bridge collapse
MINNEAPOLIS — Federal investigators have wrapped up their investigation into the cause of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, but the lawsuits are just beginning.
Attorneys representing many of the victims said their engineering experts will draw their own conclusions about what caused the disaster, signaling long court fights over responsibility for the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse that killed 13 and injured 145.
Engineers working for the largest group of victims are still waiting to examine critical pieces of the bridge, said Minneapolis attorney Chris Messerly, who leads a coalition representing more than 120 victims. He said many victims are wary of the NTSB and waiting for "private, independent, top-flight failure analysis engineers" to weigh in.
"Whether it’s good or bad for a lawsuit, we just want the truth," Messerly said. "If it does support a lawsuit, by all means that will be forthcoming."
Minneapolis attorney Jim Schwebel filed the first four lawsuits on behalf of bridge victims on Thursday.
His clients — three who suffered injuries and the family of a truck driver who was killed — are suing URS Corp., the San Francisco consulting firm hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to evaluate the 35W bridge in the years before it failed, and Progressive Contractors Inc., the St. Michael, Minn. company resurfacing the span when it fell.
Schwebel said he aims to establish that URS and PCI were culpable, forcing their insurance companies to pay all bridge victims according to their losses.
He said his team of engineering experts has already completed their own probe into the collapse, with findings that dovetail with the NTSB’s conclusions. The experts carry more weight in court because the NTSB’s conclusions are not admissible as evidence, although factual findings from the NTSB report are, he said.
Lawsuits will focus mainly on URS and PCI. The statute of limitations doesn’t allow victims to go after the bridge’s designer, Sverdrup & Parcel, for the too-thin gusset plates put into the design more than 40 years ago.
The state, which owned and operated the bridge, is protected by a $38 million compensation fund that requires victims who take settlements to give up the right to sue the state, the city of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, whose experts also studied the bridge. Settlement offers are due in February.
"The only one that’s accepted any responsibility to date, at least by their conduct if not by their press releases, is the state of Minnesota, because it came forward and set up this $38 million fund," Schwebel said.
Dozens of the victims spent months shepherding the compensation fund through the Legislature last session, and Messerly said clients represented by his group would most likely wait until the compensation process is finished in March before filing lawsuits, even if their investigation is done earlier.
Nothing bars the victims from going after private companies, who could be both targets and instigators of other litigation.
Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said the state hasn’t ruled out legal action of its own. "We’re going to keep our options open," he said.
Early this year, PCI gave the state notice of a possible lawsuit for failing to keep its workers safe.