Bridge Collapse: Who's at Fault?

Still Too Soon to Know If Anyone Is Legally Responsible

BySCOTT MICHELS ABC News Law & Justice Unit
January 8, 2009, 12:15 AM

Aug. 3, 2007 — -- Government agencies and private building contractors could face lawsuits over the collapse of the Interstate 35-W bridge in Minneapolis, lawyers told ABC News, though a dean of the University of Minnesota law school says state law would prevent most victims from recovering much money from the state.

Any legal liability will depend on the results of ongoing investigations into the causes of the collapse, and it's still too early to know who, if anyone, may be legally responsible for the disaster. Investigators will need to find out exactly what caused the collapse, if it could have been prevented and who may have known the bridge could be dangerous, lawyers said.

"There has to be a thorough investigation to find out who's at fault," said Jeffrey Denner, who represents the family of a woman killed in the Big Dig ceiling collapse in Boston last summer.

The state Department of Transportation has primary responsibility for inspecting and maintaining the bridge, a spokesman acknowledged, but Denner said, "I would expect a lot of people are going to have to answer for this, both public and private -- the people responsible for designing, constructing, maintaining, supervising and monitoring the bridge."

But they may not have to answer in court. Fred L. Morrison, the co-dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, told ABC News that Minnesota state law would prevent some lawsuits from going forward and would limit the amount of money the state has to pay out. Those laws would not necessarily impact whether the victims can get money from their insurance companies.

"I think there is probably a very limited chance of any liability recovery," Morrison said.

'Virtually Everyone' Involved

Who, if anyone, is legally responsible for the collapse will depend on what caused the bridge to give way. Lawyers expect anyone contemplating a lawsuit to look at the initial design and construction of the bridge and whether it was properly inspected and maintained.

The Minnesota State Department of Transportation designed the bridge and has primary responsibility for its inspection and maintenance, an agency spokesman confirmed. It was completed in 1967 with a design that is no longer in use.

Two private contractors built the bridge, and lawyers said it is possible that they could be sued if the initial construction was deemed faulty.

Another private company was doing repairs on the bridge at the time it collapsed. In a statement, Tom Sloan, vice president of the bridge division of Progressive Contractors, said the company was doing "routine resurfacing work" that did not involve the structural integrity of bridge.

In 2005, the federal government rated the bridge as "structurally deficient," a status that does not require that a bridge be closed or replaced. State inspections reported some structural "fatigue" in the bridge but did not say that it should be immediately replaced.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Thursday that while the federal inspection didn't indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, "If an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions," The Associated Press reported.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Thursday the state was never warned that the bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired. Another inspection was scheduled for completion in September. State officials said it has been inspected annually since 1993.

"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."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events