Victims of the I-35W bridge collapse have not all been recovered and causes of the disaster remain under investigation, but issues surrounding liability and legal consequences are starting to emerge for local participants and nationwide observers.
“There is a hotline established by the state for claims,” says David C. Semerad, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “Lawyers are already advertising for claims. I’m repulsed.” With the National Transportation Safety Board just beginning its probe, it is too early to speculate on whether criminal charges will be filed.
But trial attorneys familiar with construction cases say that expected civil suits would produce significant testimony and evidentiary detail. “The civil litigation is the area where you are going to have the most opportunity to put people under oath and get all the relevant documents,” says Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia-based trial attorney who represented construction worker victims in a $101-million settlement of lawsuits stemming from the 2005 Tropicana Hotel Casino parking garage collapse in Atlantic City, N.J.
The Minnesota Dept. of Transportation (MNDOT), which designed the I-35W bridge in the 1960s, as well as its builder, are beyond liability under state statutes, according to Bill Joyce, partner in the construction practice of Faegre & Benson, a Minneapolis-based law firm with 500 attorneys. The state’s statute of limitations allows lawsuits for a defect only within two years of its discovery. Under the state’s “law of repose,” participants are protected against legal liability for project defects and fault after 10 years of substantial completion, he says.
“This bridge was built in 1967,” says Joyce. “After 1977, claims are barred against the original designer and contractor.” However, he indicates there could be liability if a link is made to a more recent date of bridge repair and inspection. “It’s a very fluid situation, however,” says Joyce, who notes that the law firm may become involved in future bridge-related litigation. It currently is not.
Mongeluzzi says cases must await more conclusions from NTSB and other investigations. “I think that when you look at these collapses, there is usually more than one factor in play. Structures are designed so that a single event is not going to lead to a catastrophic failures,” he says.
“Typically, you are not going to have one bad inspection and all of a sudden, the bridge is going to fall down. It’s usually a series of failures.” Mongeluzzi says. While there is precedent for criminal action, he does not believe it will occur in the bridge collapse. “It is going to be unlikely to get a conviction on those charges unless there is specific evidence that this bridge was going to collapse,” he says.
Other attorneys say litigation could go on for years. “There will be conflicting views of who's liable,” says Robert Rubin, partner in Seyfarth Shaw LLP, New York City. “People will sue everybody. It’s a matter of getting a jury to determine the amount of negligence. Don’t expect it to be simple. They’re still arguing causes of the  Hyatt Regency collapse.”