URS says it didn't know I-35W bridge would fall

Vehicles rest in the water near a collapsed section of the I-35W bridge Thursday in Minneapolis. The eight-lane steel and concrete bridge, which was undergoing repair work, spanning the Mississippi River near the city's downtown, collapsed Wednesday during the evening rush hour.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

An engineering company that consulted on the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis said Thursday it should not have to pay punitive damages because it didn't know about the design flaw that caused the bridge to collapse in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

Attorneys representing 34 victims and surviving family members have asked to be allowed to seek punitive damages from San Francisco-based URS Corp., which they allege deliberately disregarded the bridge victims' safety.

URS denies that, saying it was hired to conduct a specific fatigue and fracture study of the bridge, not assess whether it was designed properly.

"URS could not deliberately disregard any problem of which it was unaware," attorneys for URS wrote in court documents filed Thursday in Hennepin County. If URS would have known a collapse was probable, it would have told Minnesota transportation officials, the filing said.

The bridge fell into the Mississippi River during a crowded evening rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007. The National Transportation Safety Board found that because of a design flaw, gusset plates on the more than 40-year-old bridge were half as thick as they should have been. Heavy construction materials on the bridge that day also stressed the undersized plates, which buckled.

URS released a statement Thursday saying it never was asked to verify the bridge's original design and did not know it was defective. URS also was not informed of plans to store the construction materials on the bridge and was not asked to assess that extra weight.

Some victims and families already are suing URS for actual damages. Under Minnesota law, a petition for punitive damages must be made later. Minnesota has no cap on punitive damages, but has strict limitations on when they can be pursued.

"Punitive damages are not awarded because a defendant was unaware of a danger, they are awarded in situations where a defendant knows that some danger is highly probable and deliberately disregards that knowledge. URS is not that defendant," attorneys for URS wrote.

Richard Nygaard, an attorney for the victims seeking punitive damages, said the URS brief shows the company knew there was no "safety factor" in the bridge and told the state in a way that made it seem the bridge was safe. Nygaard also said URS deliberately decided not to review the gusset plates.

Victims' attorneys said in their petition that URS failed to follow guidelines for bridges set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and if those guidelines were followed, URS would have had to tell the state to close the bridge immediately.

The attorneys for URS wrote Thursday that the company did not hide anything from Minnesota transportation officials, and in fact had told the state the old bridge was over-stressed by current design criteria.

In addition, URS attorneys said the plaintiffs' use of hindsight to suggest ways URS might have uncovered the problem might be relevant in claims of negligence, but do not show URS was aware of and disregarded any specific risk.

URS had a long-standing contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to evaluate the structural integrity of the bridge and recommend ways to shore it up. The company and state reached a $5 million settlement in March, with neither side admitting liability or fault for the collapse.

Hennepin County Judge Deborah Hedlund will hold a hearing on the punitive damages request next Thursday.

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