Four Victims Sue Consulting Firm in Minnesota 35W Bridge Collapse

November 18, 2008

Four victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse are suing the consulting firm that evaluated the Interstate 35W bridge and the contracting company that was repaving the structure when it fell.

Minneapolis attorney Jim Schwebel said on Wednesday that URS Corp. and Progressive Contractors Inc. are named in lawsuits he will file in Hennepin County District Court on Thursday, Nov. 13. He said the timing was not related to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the collapse’s cause, also due on Thursday.

The bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145. The suits are on behalf of three injured in the collapse, Linda Paul, Justin Mishler and Wilfred Wagner, and the family of one of the dead, Paul Eickstadt.

The suits accuse URS of breach of contract and negligence for failing to identify weaknesses in the gusset plates, identified as a key factor in the collapse because they were designed to be half the thickness they should have been.

The lawsuits also allege negligence and breach of contract on the part of St. Michael, Minn.-based PCI, which removed parts of the bridge deck and loaded more than 500,000 pounds of sand and gravel near the U10 and L11 gussets. U10 and L11 refer to specific connections on the bridge.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation hired San Francisco-based URS to evaluate the bridge, which was designed so that failure of one critical member would lead to the collapse of the entire structure. Schwebel said URS ignored evidence of corrosion on one gusset plate, L11, and its own photographs showing that another set of plates, U10, was buckling.

“You’ve got a situation here where you’ve got both ends of a fracture-critical member that are compromised,” Schwebel said. “URS did not act on this information.”

Ron Low, a spokesman for URS, declined to respond to the lawsuits, citing a company policy against commenting on pending litigation.

Kyle Hart, an attorney for PCI, said the company is disappointed that the plaintiffs did not wait until the NTSB had issued its report. He said PCI is confident the NTSB will conclude that the weight of construction material that the company had on the bridge was within allowable load limits and did not cause the collapse.

Victims of the bridge collapse had been waiting for the NTSB to finish its investigation before starting lawsuits. One potential target, the state of Minnesota, which owned the bridge, is less likely to face legal action from victims after the Legislature created a compensation fund that requires victims to give up their right to sue the state if they accept settlements.

Schwebel said he is going to court because his firm’s engineering analysis of the collapse is finished.

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