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After collapse, millions in legal claims likely

  • Article by: Chris Serres and Matt McKinney
  • Star Tribune
  • August 3, 2007 - 9:04 PM

Private contractors and the insurance companies that represent them could face hundreds of millions of dollars in legal claims arising from the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, attorneys familiar with such cases said Friday.

Floyd Siefferman, a Minneapolis attorney with experience representing victims of plane crashes, estimated that total legal claims could reach $1 billion. He cited the unusual and horrific nature of the accident as a possible catalyst for large jury awards.

"Jurors are going to say that these people should not have been forced to live through falling 60 feet into a river," Siefferman said. "That's really going to weigh heavily on jurors' hearts."

The state's liability is limited by law to $1 million, regardless of how many people were injured.

A larger payout would be possible if the state DOT had an insurance policy, but it doesn't, according to Robert McFarlin, an assistant to the commissioner of the Department of Transportation.

None of the people involved in the bridge's construction or design could be sued successfully, said attorney Robert King, of the Lommen Abdo law firm in Minneapolis. State law generally places a six-year statute of limitations on a lawsuit against contractors, he added. "You have to figure out what the triggering event was," said Mark Kulda, spokesman for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. "If this was a faulty design or a faulty construction technique, then many of the claims are probably time barred."

Given those limitations, attorneys likely will focus on the private entities involved in the bridge's maintenance, particularly if state and federal investigators find that private firms bear any of the blame for the collapse.

At least two firms and one university study have worked on or analyzed the bridge in recent years.

The private firms include URS Corp. which recommended last summer that the bridge be retrofitted, and Progressive Contractors Inc., a St. Michael firm that was working on the bridge at the time of its collapse.

A University of Minnesota study that said the bridge did not require immediate replacement, meanwhile, was completed in March of 2001. Omar Jamal of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis said he's received at least a dozen telephone calls from law firms, most of them local, since it became public knowledge that a Somali woman, Sadiya Sahal, and her two-year-old daughter, Hanah Mohamed, were among those missing after the collapse.

The calls started coming about 4 p.m. Thursday, less than 24 hours after the collapse, and haven't stopped, Jamal said. Some of the attorneys have asked for telephone numbers and other personal information about Sahal's family, Jamal said. "This is the worst form of ambulance chasing," Jamal said. "The divers are still in the river looking, and the attorneys keep calling us."

Insurance companies can also expect a flurry of claims for property damage, auto damage and workers' compensation claims. Some insurance policies also allow companies to file claims if a disaster prevents them from delivering or receiving their goods or services. Such policies, known as "contingent business interruption" coverage, could be activated if companies can prove, for instance, that the bridge collapse had a sizable impact on barge shipments on the Mississippi.

"Lawyers have a track record of being very creative," said Claire Wilkinson, vice president of global issues for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group in New York. "You can guarantee they'll pursue all the avenues available to them."

Government agencies were at one time fully protected in the event of such disasters thanks to a concept known as sovereign immunity. Based on English common law, the immunity acted as a shield from lawsuits to allow governments to plan and develop policy.

The legal precedents rest on a series of cases, many of them involving bridges, stretching back to a 1788 accident in which a man's wagon was damaged on a decrepit bridge in Devon, England. His lawsuit against the local men who built the bridge was thrown out because, among other reasons, it would lead to "an infinity" of similar lawsuits, the court ruled.

The concept leapt the Atlantic in 1812 when another man's horse died while crossing a bridge that was in disrepair. Again the court found that the local government was not liable.

Today, Minnesota state courts recognize some lawsuits against the government thanks to a 1959 incident in which Jeffery Spanel, a kindergartner, was hit on the head by a wooden slide erected in his New Brighton Elementary School classroom.

Spanel, now a civil engineer and developer in Vail, Colo., said the slide tipped over as he walked underneath it to get a book. "At the time it seemed like a 20-foot-tall slide," he said by phone Friday. "It was probably six feet tall."

He spent 10 days in the hospital recovering. His father, Charles, sued the school district for $5,000 to cover hospital expenses. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in the Spanels favor, with comments from the justices that acknowledged they were partially overturning the concept of sovereign immunity.

The case paved the way for limited lawsuits against the government. Spanel said he later learned that it was a big victory for his attorneys.

"I don't think we were awarded any money for it," he said.

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