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Lawyers target bridge consultant

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Bent I-35W gusset plate
This photo from June 12, 2003, shows a bent gusset plate on the I-35W bridge that is visible to the eye.
Photo courtesy of NTSB

While the investigators at Gray Plant Mooty preferred to focus Wednesday's presentation to the Legislature on ways to improve the Minnesota Department of Transportation, attorneys representing the bridge collapse victims focused on the interviews with four key URS consultants.  

Attorney Jim Schwebel said that the engineering firm, along with a construction company that was working on the bridge at the time of the collapse, will likely be sued at some point.  

"There's substantial evidence of negligence on behalf of URS and they will be brought into this at an appropriate time," he said.

Schwebel, whose firm is one of 20 representing the bridge victims, suggested that URS officials should have known about bowing gusset plates on the I-35W bridge.  

MnDOT hired URS in 2003 to perform a thorough analysis of fatigue in the bridge support structure.  URS presented several options to address safety concerns, including re-enforcing and retrofitting the bridge.  MnDOT chose increased inspections over the more expensive options.    

The National Transportation Safety Board has not completed its investigation as to why the bridge collapsed.  But the agency said in January that the gusset plates that connected the steel girders of the bridge were too thin.  

Schwebel said URS should have caught that problem, especially because the firm submitted photos of the plates to MnDOT.

"URS could not have possibly missed the fact that the critical gusset plates were bent, and for them to ignore this and not to make recommendations that the repairs be made immediately is really quite surprising," he said.

Officials with URS have said little since the bridge collapse.  The only comment provided to Minnesota Public Radio News was a five sentence statement one day after the disaster.  

The statement said that URS recommended that the bridge be "retrofitted to eliminate the possibility of a member fracture."

Officials with URS did not return calls for this report, but it appears that they have hired a well-known Minneapolis law firm to represent them.  

Transcripts of Gray Plant Mooty's interviews show that attorney Jocelyn Knoll of the Dorsey and Whitney law firm was present for the interviews with the four URS employees.  The transcripts also show that Knoll asserted attorney/client privilege when asked if URS did an analysis of why the bridge collapsed.  

The four URS employees were more open about the consulting work they did for MnDOT.  They told investigators that they recommended several repair options including redecking the bridge, reenforcing the bridge and conducting a greater number of more detailed inspections of the bridge.  

As to the gusset plates, the four employees said no one at the firm talked about gusset plates on the bridge within URS or to MnDOT officials.  

At one point during the interview, URS's Don Flemming said that the cause of the collapse was not related to what URS was doing or even what the firm would have recommended.  

As the victim's lawyers continue to research the possibility of a lawsuit against URS and others, it's less likely that there will be a lawsuit against the state of Minnesota.

"There's really no significance to the report from the standpoint of the victims or the pro-bono lawyers that represent them," said Chris Messerly, with Robbins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi.  

He is representing many of the bridge collapse victims and their families.  Messerly said he's advising his clients to apply for an award from the newly created Bridge Compensation Fund because the state's liability is capped at a total of $1 million.  

Messerly said the fund, which was signed into law earlier this month, would provide a settlement of up to $400 thousand for each victim with additional money available for those who suffered additional injuries and losses.  

"The way it's set up is that the fund will make an offer of settlement on the case," he said.  "And then the person after they know what the offer is has the option of either taking it or rejecting the fund altogether and proceeding with a lawsuit. So there's really no downside in going through the process and seeing what the state will offer."

Messerly also said victims who accept the settlements would have to agree not to sue the state.  But he added that the victims still have the right to sue others.