Judge: 35W bridge designer can't dodge lawsuits

A judge on Friday rejected a California design company's attempt to shield itself from lawsuits over the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

Hennepin County Judge Deborah Hedlund ruled that Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., will remain a co-defendant in a series of lawsuits. The Aug. 1, 2007 disaster killed 13 people and injured 145.

Federal investigators blamed connector plates that were too thin for the failure, although they said excessive weight also contributed.

Lawyers for Jacobs, which acquired the company that designed the 1960s-era bridge, claimed that too much time passed for it to be held liable. They argued in June that a state law put a 10-year limit on liability even for structures meant to last a century.

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Hedlund said Minnesota lawmakers revised the law in May 2007, removing a lookback window and making the changes retroactive. That justified Jacobs' inclusion in the case, she said.

"Here," Hedlund wrote, "it is not unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious to remove the ten-year repose period for claims for contribution and indemnity in construction defect cases because it prevents defendants from being liable for others' negligence in certain situations."

A Minnesota lawyer for the company, Kirk Kolbo, didn't immediately return phone and e-mail messages Friday seeking comment.

More than 100 lawsuits have been filed by victims, the state and the companies themselves. A state compensation fund paid out $37 million to those affected by the collapse and the state is trying to recover that money.

Two other defendants - engineering firm URS Corp. and paving company Progressive Contractors Inc. - opposed the Jacobs' claim of immunity. URS was under a state contract to inspect the bridge and PCI was resurfacing it at the time of the collapse.

Lawyers for those companies said the bridge wouldn't have fallen if it had been properly designed.

Kyle Hart, attorney for St. Michael, Minn.-based PCI, said the ruling is "good news for everybody but Jacobs."

"Jacobs is a very large company," Hart said. "With them at the table, recognizing they're going to have to answer for what happened, it just increases the amount of money in the potential settlements."

URS, a company with headquarters in San Francisco, had no immediate comment but planned to make one, a spokeswoman said.

The cases have a late 2010 trial date.

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