First legal action is petition for access

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2007 - 9:58 PM

A Minneapolis firm wants their experts to view the site before evidence is destroyed in the cleanup process.

Three victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and the families of two people who died filed a federal court petition on Monday seeking immediate access to the site for two experts hired by a law firm to begin an investigation that could lead to wrongful-death and personal-injury lawsuits.

The petition filed by the Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben law firm of Minneapolis is the first legal action to stem from the Aug. 1 bridge collapse.

It did not identify the victims, and James Schwebel declined to reveal who they are, but the firm wants access to the site no later than today.

"We are in the very preliminary stage on this," he said. "We've been retained by several families. We've been contacted by many others. They're obviously wanting to make sure there is some accountability for whoever is culpable for this disaster, and we need to have experts to answer many of these questions for us."

The petition was filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis with copies delivered to the offices of the U.S. attorney, Minneapolis city attorney and the state attorney general. Calls to their offices were not returned late Monday.

The experts hired by the firm will help "assist a jury in determining negligence and causation issues," the petition said.

Schwebel said the firm wants access to the site before the evidence is destroyed by the cleanup process.

The dismantling "will forever make it impossible to perform an inspection on the site," the petition said.

In potential future lawsuits, "testimony will be based upon site inspectors and will be essential to vigorously representing the interests of the above-mentioned clients," the petition said.

It was filed in federal court because the firm was informed by the Minneapolis city attorney's office that the site is under the jurisdiction of the National Transportation Safety Board and/or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with some control or authority from the city or the state Department of Transportation, the petition said.

It asks that the agencies set forth safety requirements and provide a police escort during inspection.

Schwebel said wrongful-death suits must be filed in three years, but the deadline for negligence suits is longer.

The state's liability is limited to $1 million, but one Minneapolis lawyer estimated that potential claims from the collapse against private contractors and their insurers could yield $1 billion.

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