Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. failed to convince a Minnesota state judge to throw out the claims against the company related to the collapse of the Interstate-35W bridge in Minneapolis two years ago. The company had argued that it didn’t owe Minnesota any of the $37 million the state paid out to victims because the design work performed on the bridge was done more than 40 years earlier. A state court judge in Hennepin County on Aug. 28 ruled that the state’s lawsuit against Jacobs, one of several engineers and contractors targeted, could continue.
As the bridge’s principal designer, Jacobs is a focus of the legal claims as well as being one of the biggest companies involved. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has filed several lawsuits seeking to recover money for negligence and breach of contract against Jacobs, URS Corp., which inspected the bridge a few years prior to the collapse, and Progressive Contractors Inc., which was resurfacing the bridge when it collapsed.
Jacobs seems to have inherited liability for the collapse when it bought the bridge’s designer. The state of Minnesota had hired Sverdrup &Parcel and Associates Inc. in 1962 to design the bridge. Jacobs acquired Sverdrup’s successor in 1999.
Attorneys for Jacobs relied on portions of Minnesota state law that indicated any claims for damages would have had to have been made within 10 years after work was complete. Minnesota law also prohibited claims related to improvement of real property “more than two years after discovery of the injury” or in a case involving “contribution or indemnity” more than 10 years after construction is finished.
According to media accounts, Jacobs’ attorney, Kirk Kolbo, also claimed the state lacked justification to recover the funds from Jacobs. “The state has no right of recovery,” he was quoted as arguing before the court. “It made payments voluntarily.”
Not long after the collapse, legal experts predicted the 10-year time limit on lawsuits related to property improvements could shield the state or private companies involved from big payouts.
District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund disagreed that time had run out for a claim against the designers. An amendment to the state law in 2007 stated that claims must be brought within two years, whether they start “before or after the -year repose period for direct claims.” The defendants, the state of Minnesota, “initiated their claims within two years” of the lawsuits against it by the victims.
The early motions in the case are preliminary skirmishes in what looks likely to become a long legal aftermath to the tragedy. In the two years since the bridge collapsed suddenly into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others, plaintiffs filed scores of lawsuits against firms involved in the bridge’s design and upkeep. Discovery, the process in which the parties to lawsuits take deposed testimony from those involved, is just beginning, says Kyle Hart, an attorney for Progressive Contractors.
Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the bridge collapsed due to underdesigned gusset plates. All 121 pending lawsuits related to the tragedy will be heard by Hedlund, and she plans to begin trying them in March 2011.