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Mercedes Gorden and Kimberly Brown couldn't believe what they were hearing.
Federal investigators had told survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse that they wouldn't be drawing conclusions until their investigation was complete, but last week they aimed blame at poorly designed gusset plates -- and seemed to direct it away from state government maintenance.
Among the most outspoken advocates for fellow collapse victims, Gorden and Brown got together this week to watch the movie "Erin Brockovich" -- inspiration for their quest to get a state compensation fund for disaster victims passed at the Legislature this year.
"It feels like they're leading the public to believe a certain theory before it's even been proved," Gorden said. "I kind of feel like they're shooing the victims away. They're almost trying to discourage ... victims and survivors from pursuing this fund."
Instead, it is only strengthening their resolve, the two women said.
While findings on what triggered the collapse won't be ready for months, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials said last week that some of the gusset plates on the bridge were only about half of the thickness needed to support the structure -- something routine inspections would not have flagged.
One of the reasons for establishing a state fund would be to provide an alternative to lengthy and expensive court battles.
And while a statute of limitations under Minnesota law would protect the gusset's designers, legal experts say there would be plenty of room for finger-pointing -- something that could prolong the legal battle -- if victims end up in a courtroom. They could question the states's responsibility to keep the bridge safe, or the responsibilities of private contractors to reevaluate the bridge's soundness when working on it.
"Those gussets aren't the end of the story," said David Weissbrodt, a University of Minnesota law professor. "It isn't even the end of the NTSB story, much less the whole rest of the story, where other technical people try to figure out this mystery."
An alternative to court
Legislators trying to speed compensation for victims are sponsoring bills to create a state fund for the bridge disaster and other disasters in the future.
Currently, the state's liability is capped at $300,000 per person and $1 million total for everyone putting in a claim.
Under a bill authored by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, those limits wouldn't apply and the state could pay victims for expenses not covered by insurance or contributions. Contractors may be allowed to contribute to the fund and then be protected from lawsuits.
Potential court claims against companies that worked on the bridge would depend on the scope of work done, said attorney Lowell Noteboom, who started the construction law department at the Minneapolis firm Leonard, Street and Deinard.
Substantial work would require "an obligation to evaluate and understand the structure and its ability to carry the new design loads," Noteboom said. "But that's different from hiring a contractor to come in to put a new road surface on top."
Attorney Chris Messerly, who belongs to a consortium of 20 law firms representing 67 bridge collapse victims, argued that because the bridge was declared structurally deficient in 1990, the Minnesota Department of Transportation had a "much higher standard of responsibility to all Minnesotans to look at everything and look at it again to make sure it's adequate."
A state fund would be preferable to a courtroom resolution, he said.
Attorney James Schwebel, who represents two dozen victims, has taken aim at an engineering firm hired by MnDOT to study the bridge's structural integrity.
That firm, California-based URS Inc., "certainly had available all the same information the NTSB had available," Schwebel said. "Why didn't it spot this serious design defect and call it to the state's attention?"
In an e-mail, URS spokesman Ron Low said, "We continue to believe that our professional advice was sound, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against any unwarranted claims."
Gorden, whose car crashed into a stone wall at the base of the bridge, suffered massive injuries to her legs and back. She is gearing up for her eighth surgery, this time to put pins in her toes to help her walk. A ninth surgery will remove metal from her legs. And she's been told she'll likely get arthritis later in life.
Although Gorden has insurance, she and her fiance estimate they are facing thousands in uncovered expenses, with bills continuing to stack up.
She would like help sooner rather than later, both for those expenses and the services she expects to need in years to come.
"The state ultimately hired the design firm, they approved specs and designs," Gorden said. "The bottom line is the state still has a responsibility to take care of its taxpayers."
Said Brown, "The fund isn't dependent on blame. The fund is about the state doing the right thing."
In the meantime, the legal strategizing will likely continue, with the NTSB's announcement just one more piece of information contributing to the arguments.
As to what last week's news means to the overall picture, one of the attorneys in the victims' consortium likened it to a pro football schedule:
"I think we haven't played a game yet," Wil Fluegel said, "and to guess who's going to the Super Bowl is a little speculative."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-1702