More 35W bridge lawsuits on tap

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2009 - 2:04 PM

Dozens of lawsuits related to the collapse of the bridge are being filed against a global engineering company and a local construction company.

Lawsuits representing nearly 80 victims, survivors and relatives were served Wednesday against URS Corp. and Progressive Contractors Inc., claiming the two companies' negligence led to the collapse of the old Interstate 35W bridge.

The long-anticipated lawsuits represent the largest litigation in the wake of the Aug. 1, 2007, disaster, which killed 13 people and injured 145 more.

The suits were expected to be formally filed today in Hennepin County District Court, said Chris Messerly, who is part of a consortium of attorneys working pro bono with about 115 clients. More suits from that group are expected, while separate lawsuits representing smaller groups were filed in November and April.

The latest complaints allege that the bridge collapsed because of "wrongdoing" by URS, a global engineering firm that had inspected the bridge for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and PCI, a local construction company that was repairing the bridge deck at the time. Both companies "breached duties to the people of the state of Minnesota and the motoring public," the complaint says.

The suits don't list a specific amount for damages, but Messerly said his group is seeking "many, many millions of dollars."

In November, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the bridge collapsed because some of the steel plates holding it together were only half as thick as they should have been when the bridge was designed in the 1960s. The board also cited the additional weight of construction materials placed on the bridge that day by PCI as a likely factor.

The suit says that URS deemed the "U-10" gusset plate node -- which the NTSB said failed first -- as being in "good condition," and that URS said the bridge would last indefinitely with "proper inspection." URS could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Exhibits attached to the complaints include photos of one of the bridge's roller bearings and some of its gusset plates, as well as a copy of a 2005 handwritten comment on URS stationery that says "Gusset Plate Buckling -- If this occurs, it is not catastrophic."

The complaints say that PCI was negligent because its workers "chose to place more than 500,000 pounds of construction equipment, material and vehicles onto the bridge directly above the U10 nodes."

Kyle Hart, a lawyer for PCI, said Wednesday that his client, which was working under a contract with MnDOT, is not responsible for the collapse.

"We were doing exactly what the contract allowed us to do," Hart said. "We don't make independent engineering judgments ourselves."

In response to the earlier suits, PCI has sued the state of Minnesota and Jacobs Engineering, the successor company of Sverdrup & Parcel, which designed the 40-year-old bridge.

Hart said similar claims would be made in the newest cases.

Messerly said that the statute of limitations does not allow plaintiffs to sue the design firm.

No bridge survivors or relatives are suing the state because a special $36.6 million victims compensation fund was set up by the Legislature.

Individual settlement amounts were determined by a three-lawyer panel.

Had that fund not been created, the state's liability would have been capped at a total of $1 million for all claims.

Earlier this year, Messerly said that the Thornton Tomasetti engineering firm hired by the consortium had found that a nearby beam had been the first part of the bridge to fail, not the U-10 gusset plate. The documents to be filed today don't specifically mention that finding, but Messerly said the trial will include "substantive disclosures" from experts.

The trial is not expected to begin for at least a year.

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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