State sues firm for $37 million in 35W bridge collapse


An engineering firm that studied the Interstate 35W bridge should have found the crucial flaw that led to the collapse of the span in downtown Minneapolis, the state claims in a lawsuit filed just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the disaster.

The lawsuit seeks to recover the more than $37 million the state has paid to 179 survivors, including families of the 13 people killed, when the bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River during the evening rush Aug. 1, 2007.

It alleges that San Francisco-based URS Corporation breached its contracts with the state and was negligent because it failed to discover the "substantially compromised and urgent hazardous condition of the bridge," including the fact that some of the steel gusset plates that joined the bridge's beams together were only a half-inch thick instead of a full inch.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that this error in the original design was the main reason for the collapse.

"URS violated the applicable engineering standard of care and was negligent in its inspection, analysis, and evaluation of the structural condition of the bridge and its documentation and communication to the state of the accurate structural condition of the bridge," the state's lawsuit said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation owned the bridge and signed the contracts with URS. The state agency's spokesman, Kevin Gutknecht said Friday that it does not comment on litigation.

URS spokesman Ron Low said the company was not involved in the original design or building of the bridge, nor was it directly involved in the resurfacing project that was under way when the bridge collapsed. And he said MnDOT officials had stated earlier that they didn't think URS was in the wrong.

"It is disappointing that the State of Minnesota has chosen to sue URS, especially in light of the state's earlier admissions that URS is not responsible for the bridge collapse. We intend to vigorously defend ourselves against this lawsuit," Low said.

The state's lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court Wednesday, quotes an internal URS memo dated March 16, 2006, on how the engineers planned to take a shortcut for evaluating the gusset plates:

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

"We will not calculate actual capacities of all the connections since that is too much work, although that provides the most accurate results," the memo said.

It also quotes a note from an internal URS meeting held Sept. 6, 2005, on evaluating the bridge, which said, "Gusset Plate Buckling - If this occurs, it is not catastrophic."

While the state is mostly seeking to recoup the more than $37 million it agreed to pay earlier this year from a special compensation fund set up by the Legislature, it's also seeking to require that URS and potentially other third parties cover any additional liabilities the state might face.

All of the 179 survivors or families who accepted settlements from the fund agreed not to sue the state, but a second company being sued by survivors, Progressive Contractors Inc., is seeking to make the state a defendant in those cases. PCI attorney Kyle Hart said those motions are still pending.

St. Michael, Minn.-based PCI was resurfacing the bridge, and put construction equipment and materials weighing more than 500,000 pounds above the vulnerable gusset plates before the collapse.

Hart said the state should have told PCI about the defects with the bridge. One PCI employee was killed and more than a dozen were injured in the collapse.

The largest group of survivors who have filed their own lawsuits against URS and PCI have a different theory for the cause of the collapse. They believe the failure of a horizontal beam initiated the failure before the gusset plates gave way.

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

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