State's suit against designer of 35W bridge to go forward

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2012 - 6:58 PM

U. S. Supreme Court declines to hear the appeal from firm linked to design.

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Thirteen people died and 145 were hurt when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007. The state’s lawsuit seeks money to cover its costs.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune file

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The state's lawsuit against the designer of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge can proceed, officials learned Tuesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by California-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., linked to the 1960s design of the bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145.

National transportation safety officials cited the bridge's design as a contributing cause of the collapse because it contained gusset plates that were too thin to properly hold together the bridge's steel beams. But attorneys for the Jacobs firm argued claims against it should be stopped because too many years had passed and, under state law, they were no longer liable after 1982.

Though a state law is on the books limiting liability to 15 years for such projects, the Legislature passed a provision after the collapse allowing the state to collect money related to the bridge anyway.

Attorneys for the state argued such laws don't have to apply under certain circumstances such as the bridge collapse, which it called in court papers a "catastrophe of historic proportions." The state is entitled to get money from any party that "caused or contributed to the catastrophe," it argued.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejects the vast majority of appeals from throughout the country, and experts cautioned that its decision not to hear the case makes no judgment on the value of the claims in it.

The suit seeks money to help recover its costs for the nearly $37 million the state paid to victims from a special compensation fund. The state received $5 million in a settlement from engineering firm URS Corp., a major consultant on the bridge, and $1 million from construction company Progressive Contractors Inc., which was doing work on the bridge at the time of the collapse.

URS and Progressive paid out more in settlements with victims, including more than $50 million from URS.

Tuesday's news did not affect victims, said attorney Chris Messerly, who represented many of them. "It's just a feud between who's ultimately going to pay for what happened to all the people on the bridge," Messerly said.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht declined to comment on Tuesday, saying his department does not discuss cases still in litigation. A Jacobs official did not return a message seeking comment.

Some business owners watching the case were disappointed the high court decided not to hear it.

Associated General Contractors of America, which represents 30,000 firms related to commercial construction, filed papers supporting Jacobs Engineering. A lawyer with the group, Michael Kennedy, said Jacobs acquired the original design firm, Sverdrup & Parcel and Associates Inc., in 1999 believing that there was no need to worry about work that firm had done in the 1960s in Minnesota. The Legislature changed the game, he argued, and that could have implications for endless liability on other firms that build long-lasting structures.

"It's fundamentally unfair to change the speed limit after you've already passed the sign, and then give you a ticket for going too fast," Kennedy said.

He also noted that the bridge had been under the state's control for decades and was classified as "structurally deficient" for years before the collapse.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, an attorney who helped draft legislation to compensate victims, said he believes taxpayers want everyone who was part of the disaster to pay a share of it. Even retroactively, limitations can be changed with good reason, he argued.

"Anybody who does business with the government has to live with the risk that the government's going to change its mind," Winkler said. "We are limited in how we can change our mind. As long as we change our mind within the rules, we can do that."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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