Designer of doomed 35W bridge seeks legal waiver

Bridge deck
A collapsed portion of the I-35W bridge deck.
National Transportation Safety Board

A Minnesota judge presiding over lawsuits from the Interstate 35W bridge collapse reacted skeptically Friday to a design firm's claim of legal immunity because its work was done more than four decades before the 2007 failure.

While Judge Deborah Hedlund didn't rule from the bench, she challenged an attorney for Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. to explain why a 10-year limit on liability should apply to a structure meant to last a century.

Federal investigators concluded that design flaws were the main culprit in the collapse.

"So you're saying if the bridge collapsed in the first 10 years, you're on the hook? If it doesn't you're out?" Hedlund asked Jacobs' attorney Kirk Kolbo, adding later, "Is it reasonable to cut off your liability after 10 years?"

"So you're saying if the bridge collapsed in the first 10 years, you're on the hook? If it doesn't you're out?"

Kolbo answered that the lookback window in state law doesn't distinguish between a bridge and other products nor should it.

"After long passage of time, there are many other factors that can be the cause of an accident," he said.

Jacobs is the successor to the original designer, Svedrup & Parcel, which completed its Minneapolis bridge work in the 1960s.

Hedlund's eventual ruling matters to a maze of lawsuits attempting to assign blame and damages from the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse during rush hour:

-So far, 21 lawsuits from some of the 145 injured and families of the 13 killed in the disaster have been filed against two companies doing engineering and repaving work on the bridge. Dozens more cases are expected to be filed this month.

-Those companies -- URS Corp. and Progressive Contractors Inc. -- want to draw the design firm in so it would share in any potential costs.

-The state of Minnesota is suing and being sued as well.

The confluence created quite a scene in court Friday. Ten lawyers sat elbow-to-elbow at two tables before Hedlund in her Hennepin County courtroom. They spoke over one another when summoned to the bench for an off-the-record meeting to map out depositions and document exchanges.

None of the cases are expected to go to trial before late 2010.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined late last year that the bridge collapsed because some steel gusset plates that held the bridge's beams together were designed to be only half an inch thick, when they should have been an inch thick.

The victim lawsuits don't name Jacobs, but defendants PCI and URS say the company shouldn't go unscathed.

URS attorney Jocelyn Knoll offered a competing interpretation of Minnesota law on the window for suing.

"But for Jacobs' negligence in underdesigning that bridge, we wouldn't be here," Knoll said.

She told the judge earlier in the two-hour hearing, that "Jacobs seeks to escape all liability and make URS and PCI pay for Jacobs' mistakes."

URS is the consulting firm hired by the transportation department to evaluate the bridge before it failed.

PCI is targeted because it was resurfacing the bridge and had heavy equipment and materials staged above vulnerable gussets when the span crumbled into the Mississippi River.

The sides will be back in court Aug. 10 when Jacobs and PCI will argue for dismissal of state claims against them.