35W bridge survivors sue construction companies

Piles of sand
Progressive Contractors is accused in the lawsuits of negligence for placing construction equipment and materials weighing more than 500,000 pounds above vulnerable gusset plates. This photo shows piles of sand and construction equipment on the bridge before it collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007.
Image courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

The largest group of Minneapolis bridge collapse victims is suing two companies that worked on the structure, saying the rush-hour disaster was "entirely avoidable."

Attorney Chris Messerly said lawyers for 79 victims served the lawsuits Wednesday on URS Corp., a consultant that analyzed the bridge, and Progressive Contractors Inc., whose crews were resurfacing the bridge when it fell. Messerly's office said the lawsuits would be filed Thursday in Hennepin County District Court.

The lawsuits allege that San Francisco-based URS was negligent for failing to identify problems in the bridge, including a locked roller bearing and too-thin gusset plates connecting bridge beams. The exhibits include a handwritten note with a URS logo that says, "Gusset Plate Buckling - If this occurs, it is not catastrophic."

The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the bridge collapse to a 1960s design flaw in the gusset plates, which were half the thickness they should have been. But experts hired by Messerly's group said the failure of a horizontal beam initiated the collapse.

Progressive Contractors is also accused in the lawsuits of negligence for placing construction equipment and materials weighing more than 500,000 pounds above vulnerable gusset plates. The company is located in St. Michael, Minn.

"Before August 1, 2007, both URS and PCI chose not to warn anyone of the potentially catastrophic effect of increased loads on the already significantly compromised Bridge," the lawsuits say.

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Messerly said the victims are seeking unspecified monetary damages, which could be in the tens of millions of dollars. He said the group includes relatives of victims killed in the collapse and those who were injured. All but a few victims sued both companies, but those who worked for Progressive Contractors couldn't sue their employer.

URS spokesman Ron Low said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

An attorney for Progressive Contractors said the company is not liable. PCI is cross-suing URS, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Jacobs Engineering, the Pasadena, Calif.-based successor to the original bridge designer, Sverdrup & Parcel.

Attorney Kyle Hart said PCI's crews put less weight than was allowed on the bridge.

"Had it been properly designed, the weight would have had no effect on the bridge," he said. "We just are adamant that we have no liability for this."

Messerly said more lawsuits are coming from his legal coalition representing more than 100 victims.

Lawsuits from 21 other victims against URS and Progressive Contractors are already under way, alleging breach of contract and negligence. Messerly said it's unlikely the two sets of victim lawsuits will be combined because the basis of their claims are somewhat different.

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

The bridge fell on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)