Bridge Compensation Bill Would Shield University of Minnesota

April 3, 2008

Buried deep inside one version of a bill to compensate the victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse is language that would shield the University of Minnesota from any liability.

University researchers authored a 2001 study of fatigue cracking that concluded there was no need to replace the bridge, which collapsed into the Mississippi River Aug. 1, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

The move to protect the university from potential legal claims has drawn little notice as legislators debate proposals that would set aside as much as $40 million for the victims.

House-Senate conferees are considering whether the final legislation should include language protecting the university, which is in the Senate’s but not the House’s version of the plan.

Both versions would require victims who accept the compensation to waive their right to sue the state. The Senate’s language subtly would make sure that includes the university.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chief author of the Senate bill, said he added the provision after being approached by Mark Rotenberg, the university’s general counsel, who wanted “some comfort” that victims who accept state compensation would waive any legal claims against the university.

Latz said he was aware of the 2001 study and that he never attempted to hide his intent to protect the university.

“No one is playing hide the ball,” he said.

Rotenberg said he could not recall whether he initiated the dialogue with Latz, and he described the plan to protect the university as a formality because there are no indications that any victims want to sue the school or assert that there was anything wrong with the 2001 study.

The University of Minnesota is never mentioned by name in the Senate bill. Its language says any victim accepting money from the state must release the state from legal claims. “State,” the proposal specifies, “has the meaning given in Minnesota Statues, section 3.732.”

That statute, which is not described in the bill, includes the university along with state departments, boards, agencies and commissions.

The House proposal is more straightforward, exempting the “state and its political subdivisions,” such as a city, from any legal claims. It does not specifically shield the university.

The chief author of the House plan, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-St. Paul, said he was studying whether to support the language on the university.

“It’s not an issue that came up in the House,” Winkler said. “I just need more information to know why we want (to go) down that path.”

The 2001 study evaluated metal fatigue on the deck truss and concluded that the Minnesota Department of Transportation “does not need to prematurely replace this bridge because of fatigue cracking, avoiding the high costs associated with such a large project.”

Former Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg said last summer that the study’s findings were so “remarkably straightforward” he remembered little else about it.

“Typically, those kinds of studies have, you know how that stuff is written, it has all kinds of caveats to it,” he said this week.

Paul Bergson, one of three authors of the study, welcomed language protecting the university. He said the study did not find any indications that the bridge’s gusset plates, which served as connecting pieces, should be a cause of concern. Federal investigators have since said the gussets were designed too thin and were likely a major factor in the disaster.

“We weren’t tasked to look at the gusset plates,” Bergson said. “You’re so limited in budget and scope.”

Dick Nygaard, an attorney for some of the collapse victims, said he was aware of attempts to protect the university.

‘”If I was Rotenberg, I’d be asking for the same thing,” he said.


Information from: Star Tribune,

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