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Lawyers seek cause in preparing for lawsuits

  • Article by: Rochelle Olson
  • Star Tribune
  • September 23, 2007 - 11:35 PM

State and federal officials aren't the only ones investigating the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. From their downtown Minneapolis offices, two major law firms have initiated far-reaching efforts to find a cause and assign blame for the Aug. 1 disaster.

They are meticulously assembling photos, documents, experts and witnesses in preparation for the next battleground: the courtroom.

A third firm is doing its own research to defend against the lawsuits that might be coming.

The high-profile lawyers representing clients injured in the collapse say they are certain their efforts will yield a specific cause and blame, which means lawsuits, most likely negligence or liability claims.

"If you're going to take any case, you have an obligation to be extremely thorough," said Chris Messerly, lead attorney on the case for Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.

A consortium of lawyers led by the firm is working for free -- without a contingency fee -- for about 30 victims. Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben has 19 bridge clients.

Both firms say their bridge clients contacted them, they did not seek them out.

Meanwhile, Kyle Hart of Fabyanske, Westra, Hart & Thomson is working from the same building as the Robins firm to represent the construction company PCI, which was working on the bridge. Hart said he hired a Chicago engineering firm to determine whether the weight of construction equipment on the bridge contributed to the collapse. He said the firm ruled it out.

"They've determined the weight we had on the bridge was well within design load limits," Hart said. "We wanted to satisfy ourselves that we didn't have anything to do with the collapse. So we're hoping we're not going to get sued."

Suits won't be filed until after the National Transportation Safety Board issues findings, the plaintiffs' lawyers say. Those findings will be admissible in court, but conclusions will not, making it important for firms to get their own answers.

"Right now we've collected thousands of documents in the public domain," Messerly said. "The documents that are really important, none of us have seen."

From his office in the IDS building, Jim Schwebel can see the remains of the bridge. He's certain that the investigations will yield answers. "There aren't many secrets in structural engineering," he said.

One of the first orders of business: lining up pros, including engineering and metallurgy experts. A Messerly partner, Phil Sieff, spent a week interviewing top experts on the East Coast.

"There's always a race to retain experts because there are only a handful who can speak to negligence, causation and culpability," Schwebel said.

The firms are also setting up banks of photos -- both from public sources and those they take themselves. The massive amount of photographic evidence is one reason the lawyers are so certain a cause will be determined.

They're also gathering first-person accounts of the collapse. "We're talking to witnesses every day. Many of them are our clients," Messerly said.

Then there are the historical documents dating to when the bridge opened in 1967.

"Everyone involved in this needs to know the complete history of this bridge -- every repair that's been made, every modification, every inspection report," Schwebel said. The aim is to find out: "What did these folks know and when did they know it?"

Lots of disaster experience

Both firms estimate hundreds of thousands of dollars of preparation work will be done.

Both have experience with major disasters. The Robins firm represented India on behalf of the victims in the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster that killed at least 10,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands of others. The case against Union Carbide closed with a $470 million settlement.

Schwebel has secured nearly three dozen recoveries of more than $1 million or more. He represented victims of the MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas, the Williams Pipeline explosion in Roseville, the Nicollet Mall Holidazzle crash and the Minnesotans who lost family members in the Galaxy Airline crash in Reno, Nev., in 1985.

As for who might get sued, Schwebel said San Francisco-based consultant URS Inc. appears to be a potential target.

That company wouldn't be surprised. A spokesman said, "URS stands behind its work, which clearly identified ways to improve the integrity of the bridge. We will defend ourselves vigorously against any unwarranted claims."

Lawyers representing collapse victims say that much of the legal work now isn't about lawsuits, but about helping their clients cope. Some clients face staggering hospital bills and are uninsured. Others are unable to work and pay the mortgage.

Schwebel is certain there will be financial compensation for victims. "We wouldn't be on the top floor of the IDS building if we made a lot of bad judgments as to which cases to get involved in," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Rochelle Olson • raolson@startribune.com

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