Civil Responsibility

Abstract

The collapse of the Interstate-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2007 was one of the most tragic events to happen in the state of Minnesota and it led to a string law suits against the parties concerned. The incident left thirteen people dead with well close to 150 others injured on the fateful day. Though all the lawsuits are yet to be settled, some policy framework was changed to enhance the security of the bridge system in the United States.

Introduction:

The tragic event that occurred in 2007 at I-35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis remains to be one of the most disastrous events to occur in the history of the United States. This event resulted in many events ranging from public policy issues, immunity and tort liability issues to the parties involved. Many individuals however were not happy at how the events were shaping following the accident. The I-35 Mississippi River Bridge was built of steel and used to carry Interstate 35W across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On the Wednesday of August 1st 2007, the bridge unexpectedly collapsed leading to the death of thirteen individuals and more than 140 casualties. The Interstate-35W Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in the United States and ranks among the top ten in the whole country. On the tragic day, the bridge was busy as it was during a rush hour leading to plunging of vehicles and debris into the water below the bridge. There was also a freight train passing under the bridge which was struck during the fateful moment. This paper shall examine the incident touching on various issues including the accident, the policy issues, public reactions and the ultimate decision on the matter.

The Collapse of the Bridge:

The Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed in 2007 during rush hour when traffic was bumper to bumper leading to chaotic scene where cars and truck that were carrying people plunged into the river below the bridge. After the accident, more than ten individuals lost their lives whereas more than a hundred were fatally injured. This was regarded as the most tragic day in Minnesota’s history as the state had never experienced a disaster of such a magnitude. The bridge stood sixty four feet high and was under maintenance and in fact on the fateful day, the Minnesota Department of Transport crew was reportedly on duty.

Though the number of vehicles involved in the incident could not be identified, it is believed that a substantial amount of traffic was involved in the fateful incident. Aerial pictures indicated that the entire span of Interstate-35W Bridge had collapsed into the Mississippi River. The emergency teams were engaged in a beehive of activities to rescue some life from the scene which saw the injured being given first aid and rushed to hospital (vbulletin.org, 2010).

Some reports indicated that the bridge was frequently inspected last in 2005; reports from the Federal Highway Administration showed that the bridge required some replacement. However, according to Pawlenty [the Governor], the three inspections carried out between 2005 and 2006 revealed that there were no structural defects and that the deck of the bridge was to be replaced in the year 2020. Contractors had been assigned some duties on the bridge including concrete work, lighting, guardrails, and joint repairs. On the fateful day, casualties included the daily commuters, fans who were headed for a Minnesota Twins baseball game at Metrodome and a bus that was ferrying children from a field trip. At the scene, cars lay shattered amid over-hanging concrete and steel, others were submerged in the river water. Rescuers were busy pulling people from the wrecks and motorists were honking their horns to alert other people. The scenery was terrific (vbulletin.org, 2010).

Holes in Federal data:

Following the collapse of the Interstate-35 Bridge, there was a request from the federal officials requiring that there be an immediate inspection of similar bridges in the country. A problem emerged as there was no authentic record to reveal the exact number of such bridges in the country. Initially it was claimed that there were 756 bridges of the same kind as to the one that had collapsed in Minneapolis according to the National Bridge Inventory data.  The National Bridge Inventory relies on data from the various states for its records.

The state engineers gave a conflicting number which surpassed the one provided by the National Bridge Inventory by 32. However, close inspections by the state revealed that two hundred and eighty of the bridges that had been enlisted had no steel deck trusses as had earlier been presumed. When the survey of the bridges was completed, it was found that the number of bridges that were similar to the collapsed one in Minneapolis were 479 which was 277 lesser than had been presumed (Dedman, 2008).

Law Suits Following the Bridge collapse:

Several law suits were launched following the collapse of the Interstate-35W Bridge which saw many people suffer from the aftermath. Thirteen individuals perished during the incident which also left more than 140 injured. In a case filed by the bridge victims, the contractor was liable to pay for the payment of punitive damages that had been caused during the accident. More than 130 victims filed a law suit asking the Hennepin County judge to compel an engineering contractor to pay for the damages alleging that the defendant had prior knowledge that the bridge could fail.

The company which had been hired by the Minnesota state to evaluate the integrity of the bridge was the URS Corp (Nelson, 2010). The San Francisco-based URS Corp has defended itself against the claims to pay for the punitive damages since it was not aware of the design flaws in the bridge. The company holds that its contract was limited to conducting specific fatigue and fracture study and not on the design (Forliti, 2010).

In yet another law suit, a construction company agreed to settle the law suits. The Progressive Contractors Incorporated was contracted to do some resurfacing work on the bridge before it collapsed causing the fatalities and agreed to make financial settlement of the suits against it which were approved by the Hennepin County judge Deborah Hedlund (Mador, 2009). The state also sued the engineering firm which had been mandated to carry out inspections of the bridge at the time of the disaster.

The URS Corp is said to have failed in identification of the flaws in the steel gusset plates which joined the beams. According to the National Transport Safety Board report, the faulty gusset plates were the primary cause of the collapse of the bridge. The law suit by the state seems to be aimed at recovering the more than $37 million used by the state in paying the close to 180 survivors including the family members of those who perished in the accident. The state alleges that URS Corp was in breach of its contract with the state as it failed to note the hazardous condition of the bridge (Karnowski, 2009).

According to the law suit, it is claimed the “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” (Karnowski, 2009, para 4). In reaction to the suit, the URS Corp turned around the suit and claimed that Minnesota State was at fault and should therefore not try to recover damages from the company. According to the URS Corp, the state ignored advice calling for repairs of the bridge and therefore should bear full responsibility for the tragedy (Bakst, 2009).

The Ultimate Decision:

Following the numerous law suits that involved the collapse of the Interstate-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Judge Deborah Hedlund ruled that none of the case shall be ready for trial until in the march 2011. The law suits targets are URS Corp and the Progressive Contractors Inc. which were the two companies that had been contracted by the State of Minnesota to carry out repair works on the bridge. The suits also involve the Minnesota State and the original company which designed the bridge. The parties involved in the suit have been given time to conduct pre-trial motions, depositions and data exchanges. Retired Judge Robert Lynn was appointed preside over the pre-trial aspects of the case (Garrison, 2009).

Following the collapse of the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge, states were required to inspect the bridges with similar designs with the aim of correcting the mess to avoid such a disaster in the future. In Minnesota it was established that the state lacked adequate redundancy in the bridge systems and interior communications. This was to be corrected and communication about bridge conditions is now shared between the concerned departments. The number of bridge inspectors was increased in Minnesota from 110 to 140 inspectors. Bridge management was also an issue that cropped up which was to be managed by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (Stachura, 2009).

Public Reaction:

The public had been outraged by how the victims had been treated by the companies in the first place. However, they showed some relief when the construction company which was contracted to resurface the spun at the time agreed in principle to settle their law suits. According to the victims’ attorneys that were the first step to indicate that the litigations related to the collapse were going to be laid to rest in the near future. With federal investigation of the collapse placing blame on the design, those companies responsible for the evaluation of the bridge and its design should be brought to book. The decision to postpone the case until all the pre-trial elements are dealt with is welcome in the sense that finally, the culprits shall be brought to book. The blame game will be over and someone will have to bear responsibility for what happened (Silver, 2009).

The scheduled trial in March 2011 is set to lay the matter to rest. According to the victim’s attorney, “It certainly puts the focus of this litigation directly where it should be, and that is URS. It's the company that had the primary responsibility for doing the bridge inspections” (Silver, 2009, para 13). It has to be noted that URS Corp had bro secondary law suit against company which had designed the bridge whereas that company had attempted to shield itself from liability based on the argument that a long time had elapsed since the designing and the building of the bridge (Silver, 2009).

It must be appreciated that following the disaster there were new policy framework that was instituted to cater for the bridges to ensure the safety of the American people who would be using them.

Reference:

Bakst, B. (2009). Company deflects blame for Minn. bridge collapse. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from;

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/08/14/35w-bridge-collapse-contractor/

Dedman, B. (2008). Bridge collapse revealed holes in federal data. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from; http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/25956395/ns/38201613.

Forliti, A., (2010). URS says it didn't know I-35W Bridge would fall. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from;

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/07/08/35w-bridge-contractor/

Garrison, L. (2009). No Trial in 35W Bridge Collapse Cases Until 2011. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from; http://kstp.com/news/stories/S1159473.shtml?cat=206.

Karnowski, S., (2009). State sues firm for $37 million in 35W bridge collapse. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from; http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/07/31/state-sues-35w-bridge-consultant/

Mador, J., (2009). Construction co. settles bridge collapse lawsuits. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from;

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/11/06/bridge-collapse-settlement/

Nelson, T., (2010). I-35W bridge victims: Contractor should pay punitive damages. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from; http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/07/15/35w-bridge-lawsuit/

Silver, P. W., 2009. I-35W bridge collapse victims welcome lawsuit settlement. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from; http://www.kare11.com/news/news_article.aspx?storyid=828023.

Stachura, S. 2009. Lessons learned from the 35W bridge collapse. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from;

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/07/30/bridge-lessonslearned/

vbulletin.org, (2010). I-35W Bridge collapse: 7 dead, 20 missing, 60 injured. Retrieved on 22nd July 2010 from; http://www.vbulletin.org/forum/showthread.php?t=154095.