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35W bridge contractors respond to state's lawsuit

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A design firm and a construction contractor shouldn't have to reimburse the state for $37 million paid to victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, attorneys for the companies told a Minnesota judge on Monday.

      The state wants Jacobs Engineering Group and Progressive Contractors Inc. to pay the money, saying they helped contribute to the collapse. It also has sued an engineering firm that studied the bridge before it failed.

      A federal investigation ultimately identified a problem in the bridge design, and the weight of construction materials piled on the bridge, as key factors in the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse. 

Jacobs is the successor to the original bridge designer, Sverdrup & Parcel, and PCI was doing repaving work on the bridge when it fell.

      Jacobs and PCI asked Hennepin County Judge Deborah Hedlund on Monday to dismiss the state's claims, saying the $37 million the state paid was a settlement to satisfy its own liability. The companies argued that the state can't now claim reimbursement from them.

      Hedlund, who is presiding over a series of bridge collapse lawsuits, didn't immediately rule. The parties are also waiting to hear whether she will allow Jacobs to be legally immune because design work on the bridge took place more than four decades ago.

      Jacobs attorney Kirk Kolbo argued that even if the firm doesn't get the immunity, it doesn't owe the state money.

      "The state has no right of recovery," Kolbo said. "It made payments voluntarily."

      PCI attorney Ted Roberts said the compensation fund set up by Minnesota legislators that ended up paying the 179 victims and survivors was not an advance on money the companies might eventually be ordered to pay the victims.

      "The Legislature has already made decisions that in any other situation would have been decided by a judge," Roberts said. "It's got no connection to what we owe, if anything."

      But the attorney representing the state, Al Gilbert, said settling with the victims was the responsible thing for state officials to do even if they believed the contractors were the ones at fault.

      "They were looking out for the public interest. They put money in the hands of the survivors. Otherwise they would have waited for years," Gilbert said. "Equity demands that parties who are actually culpable pay."

      Besides the state's lawsuits against Jacobs, PCI and URS Corp., the company the state had hired to study and inspect the bridge, PCI has also sued the state for allegedly failing to tell the company about the bridge's dangers. One PCI employee was killed and more than a dozen were injured in the collapse.

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