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High Court Allows Bridge Collapse Suit

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

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Minnesota will proceed with its lawsuit against the engineering firm that designed the doomed I-35 bridge, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the firm’s appeal.

Without comment Tuesday, the high court denied review of Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. v. Minnesota.

 The collapse of the I-35 Bridge four days after the disaster.

 U.S. Coast Guard / Kevin Rofidal

Gusset plates too thin for their load—a design flaw dating back decades—were cited in the collapse of the I-35 Bridge. This was the scene four days after the disaster.

An engineering firm that later merged with Jacobs Engineering, based in Pasadena, CA, designed the bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007.

The disaster killed 13 people and injured 145. Federal investigators later cited the bridge’s design as a leading cause of the collapse.

Reimbursement Law at Issue

The legal dispute stems from a 2008 Minnesota law that allows the state to seek reimbursement for the collapse from parties that may have contributed to it. The state is seeking a total of nearly $37 million from all parties to compensate victims and has already received $6 million in settlements with two other firms.

The 2008 reimbursement law superseded one on the books that had limited liability for such projects to 15 years. Under the original law, Jacobs’ liability for the bridge would have ended in 1982.

The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the new law after attorneys for the state argued that the original statute of limitations should not be bound by circumstances such as the bridge collapse, which the attorneys called a “catastrophe of historic proportions.”

The state high court said the reimbursement laws did not violate Jacobs’ constitutional rights.

‘Fundamentally Unfair’

Jacobs’ position in the case drew support from, among others, the Associated General Contractors of America, which represents 30,000 firms related to commercial construction.

The I-35 bridge was designed by the St. Louis-based civil engineering firm Sverdrup & Parcel (later, Sverdrup Civil), which merged with Jacobs Engineering in 1999.

Michael Kennedy, an attorney for Jacobs, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Jacobs Engineering had believed at the time of the merger that it was not liable for work that Sverdrup & Parcel had performed in the 1960s.

 More than 450 feet of the bridge’s main span dropped 108 feet into the Mississippi River.

 Wikimedia Commons / Mike Wills

More than 450 feet of the bridge’s main span dropped 108 feet into the Mississippi River.

He said the legislature’s ability to override liability laws retroactively could have damaging widespread implications for other infrastructure firms.

“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 told the newspaper.

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, the Star Tribune reported.

‘Live with the Risk’

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, who helped draft legislation to compensate the victims of the collapse, told the newspaper that taxpayers wanted private parties who had contributed to the disaster to help pay for it. He said that limitations could be changed retroactively for a good reason.

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

Design Flaw Blamed

The catastrophic rush-hour failure brought down about 1,000 feet of the deck truss, with about 456 feet of the main span falling 108 feet into the 15-foot-deep river. A total of 111 vehicles were on the part of the bridge that fell.

Roadway repair work was also underway at the time, with construction equipment and construction aggregates staged in the two closed inside southbound lanes.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators later traced the origin of the collapse to the failure of the bridge’s gusset plates. The board determined that because of a design error decades before, the  gusset plates were about half as thick as they should have been.

The NTSB cited these causes for the collapse:

• Insufficient bridge design firm quality control procedures for designing bridges;

• Insufficient federal and state procedures for reviewing and approving bridge design plans and calculations;

• Lack of guidance for bridge owners with regard to the placement of construction loads on bridges during repair or maintenance activities;

• Exclusion of gusset plates in bridge load rating guidance;

• Lack of inspection guidance for conditions of gusset plate distortion; and

• Inadequate use of technologies for accurately assessing the condition of gusset plates on deck truss bridges.

Neither Jacobs Engineering nor Minnesota officials commented on the Supreme Court’s decision.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Construction; Engineers; Laws and litigation

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