Judge: Victims' lawyers can't have access to collapsed bridge site

  • Updated: November 30, 2007 - 8:51 AM

Hennepin County judge denies victims' lawyers more access to bridge. Lefler issues three-page order.

A Hennepin County judge has denied a Minneapolis law firm representing Interstate 35W bridge victims access to additional data about the bridge collapse.

District Judge Herbert Lefler denied the request from Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben in a three-page order. The firm sought to compel the state Department of Transportation to produce all data created and received in the course of the investigation of the Aug. 1 bridge collapse. The law firm also sought access to the Mississippi River-adjacent area known as Bohemian Flats, where some pieces of the bridge are stored.

Lefler heard arguments on the request a couple of weeks ago.

The victims' attorneys argued that MnDOT is unnecessarily withholding public data from them at the same time it is allowing state-paid consultant Wiss, Janney, Elstner wide access to the same data and key parts of the bridge.

The law firm brought the claim under the state's Data Practices Act, which provides that "government data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by a government entity shall be public unless classified by statute ... or federal law, as nonpublic or protected nonpublic," the memo said.

The state argued that regulations of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting an investigation of the collapse to which MnDOT is a party, classify the data as nonpublic. The regulations state that "no information concerning the accident or incident may be released to any person not a party representative to the investigation before the initial release by the Safety Board without prior consultation or approval of the [investigator in charge]," the memo said.

Because the data are not public under federal law, the law firm won't have access, Lefler wrote.

Wiss, Janney is allowed access because it is an agent of the state and considered by the NTSB to be a participant in the investigation, he wrote. As such, all data collected by Wiss, Janney are also nonpublic, he ruled.

He also determined that the wreckage at Bohemian Flats is off-limits.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not return calls on Wednesday.

ROCHELLE OLSON

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