The insurance industry is vowing to take care of any claims arising out of the Minneapolis bridge collapse tragedy without delay.
“There will be no exclusions – it will all be coverable. The industry wants to take care of this in a timely manner,” said Mark Kulda, vice president of public relations for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.
Insurers expect that claims for auto damage, workers’ compensation and commercial property damage will be the bulk of the initial claims to come in, according to Kulda.
Later, there could be claims and lawsuits involving the construction and design of the bridge and against state agencies involved in maintaining the structure, industry officials said.
The bridge known locally as the I-35W Bridge that hosted a heavy volume of traffic through downtown Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed during Wednesday’s afternoon rush hour – the deadly tragedy was caught on security cameras.
As bad as the tragedy is, it could have been worse. Kulda said 200 rescue crews were on the scene of the collapse within one hour of occurrence. Kulda said the “top notch” rescue teams were aided by the location. The rescuers came from each of approximately 100 suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Hennepin County Medical Center – only six blocks away – has the largest and highest rated trauma center in the state, according to Kulda.
“Everybody who could have been saved was rescued within an hour and a half,” Kulda said. “There was an immediate response with boats and rescue equipment. It was super organized.”
But emergency workers could not prevent all tragedy.
Around 40 construction workers were replacing concrete on the bridge at the time of collapse, according to Kulda. He said it appears that they all fell into the water and all but one has been accounted for thus far. He said there might be workers’ compensation claims for these workers.
The I-35W Bridge is located at the foot of Lock and Dam Number One – the first on a north to south route and the largest on the Mississippi River. There are several shipping companies north of the lock that Kulda said could end up with business interruption claims. There is also a railroad line adjacent to the bridge and when it collapsed, part of it landed on a freight train that was traversing underneath.
Liability claims and lawsuits relating to the bridge design and construction could be coming as well. Minnesota has a relatively lengthy statute of limitations – six years, as compared to California’s one year, for example, noted Kulda.
According to Kulda, the 40-year old bridge has an inherent design deficiency, in that the structure’s weight-bearing mechanism only had one outlet. If that mechanism is compromised, there is no back-up system to help distribute the weight, he said. It is not a “redundant” weight bearing system.
When asked why a bridge would be constructed in this fashion, Kulda said it was a calculated risk at the time: “They didn’t anticipate failure of a truss. They made an assumption – for some reason, it didn’t work,” he offered.
The constant spray of water coming from nearby St. Anthony Falls may also have contributed to the bridge’s ultimate failure, Kulda revealed. In the winter, the bridge constantly ices over, requiring heavy applications of corrosive sand and salt. Eventually, an automatic de-icing device was retrofitted onto the bridge, adding extra weight and ensuring the continual corrosive process, according to Kulda.
This accident will have a massive impact on the Twin Cities for a long time, Kulda said. The bridge accommodated four lanes of heavy commuter traffic every day. There are two parkways and a railroad line underneath the bridge, as well as bike trails.
The heavily traveled bridge is inspected annually, according to Kulda, and has passed all inspections. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies (located only two blocks away from the disaster scene) conducted an in-depth transportation safety analysis on the structure a couple years ago.
Claire Wilkinson, vice president of global issues for the industry’s Insurance Information Institute, said state agencies could potentially face suits, if there were warnings that were ignored.
State agencies sometimes use “hold harmless agreements” which are clauses in liability policies that hold the parties responsible for the damage liable for subsequent compensation, Wilkinson said. “But the state will likely face exposure,” she added.
While this time of year is a low traffic season for barge trade on the Mississippi River, Wilkinson anticipates there to be business interruption claims in addition to private vehicle collision and comprehensive claims, commercial vehicle issues and workers’ compensation claims.
“There will ultimately be clean-up costs to deal with as well,” Wilkinson said.
Kulda said there are lots of “smart people” that will be involved in the forensic investigation of the disaster. “There is no lack of experts here,” he said. “There were 50 of them on the bridge when it fell. I think we will know very quickly how it fell.”
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