Bridge Collapse: Who's at Fault?

"There was no call by anyone that we're aware of that said it should be immediately closed or immediately replaced," Pawlenty said, according to the AP. "It was more of a monitor, inspect, maintain, and potentially replace it in the future."

Denner, the Big Dig lawyer, said, "Virtually everyone could have some level of liability."

Michael Hess, the former New York City corporation counsel, said, "So much depends on the specific facts."

Causes Still Unknown

But, the facts surrounding the collapse are still unknown.

State reports from 2001 and 2005 indicated that there were "fatigue" cracks in parts of the bridge, and said that the bridge had no backup system to bear the weight of traffic in the event of an unexpected structural failure.

Dan Dorgan, the director of bridges for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said reports over the last 20 years had found bearing and corrosion problems, and fatigue cracks that were repaired in the early 1990s. Despite the federal designation, which a federal highway transportation official described as "programmatic," the bridge was still deemed fit for travel, Dorgan said.

Pawlenty said that the bridge was not expected to be replaced until 2020.

Engineers found structural problems in the bridge as far back as 1990, but state officials thought patches and yearly inspections would be enough to keep it together, Dorgan said, the AP reported. This year's inspection would have involved $2.4 million worth of maintenance on the deck, joints, guard rails and lights.

"We thought we had done all we could. Obviously something went terribly wrong," Dorgan said, according to the AP.

Lawsuits Probably Barred

The Minnesota statute of limitations would probably prevent collapse victims from suing over the design or initial construction of the bridge, which was built 40 years ago, Morrison said.

Even if investigators conclude that the bridge was improperly inspected or maintained, or if the state failed to replace the bridge knowing that it was dangerous, the government would probably only have to pay a maximum of $1.2 million, Morrison said.

"It's too early to say, but if you're looking at the standard kinds of claims, they're either barred by time or by the fact that the state would be a defendant," he said.

Legislature Could Step In

If Morrison's predictions are accurate, the local, state or federal government could still compensate victims and their families regardless of their technical legal rights.

"Sometimes everyone pitches in and says these people deserve to be compensated," said Hess. "Some people might feel they're morally responsible."

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