Tort Law

Blame Game Begins in Bridge Tragedy

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Although it’s too early to know exactly what caused Wednesday’s horrific rush-hour collapse of the Interstate 35-W bridge in Minneapolis, fingers are pointing in various directions, and some are thinking about possible litigation.

Likely potential targets would include state and federal government entities and private contractors responsible for constructing and maintaining the 40-year-old bridge, built with a design that is no longer in use because modern construction provides stronger alternatives, according to ABC News and other media reports.

However, at least as far as government entities are concerned, recovery may be unlikely, because of sovereign immunity and damages limitations that apply to such tort claims—assuming, of course, that government entities are even shown to be at fault in the first place, Fred L. Morrison, a co-dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, tells ABC. “I think there is probably a very limited chance of any liability recovery,” he says.

Initial insurance claims likely will involve auto, worker’s compensation and commercial liability coverage, and should be promptly paid, reports the Insurance Journal. “There will be no exclusions – it will all be coverable. The industry wants to take care of this in a timely manner,” says Mark Kulda, vice president of public relations for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.

“According to Kulda, the 40-year old bridge has an inherent design deficiency, in that the structure’s weight-bearing mechanism only had one outlet,” the article continues. “If that mechanism is compromised, there is no back-up system to help distribute the weight, he said. It is not a ‘redundant’ weight bearing system.”

This calculated risk was thought to provide a sufficient safety margin at the time the bridge was designed, but Kulda speculated that engineers’ calculations may not have sufficiently accounted for the corrosive effect of routine de-icing required in winter due to the splashing of a nearby waterfall. “They didn’t anticipate failure of a truss,” he said. “They made an assumption—or some reason, it didn’t work.”

Some finger-pointing clearly was not intended to try to establish a direct legal remedy: Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for instance, said the administration of President George W. Bush bore some responsibility, according to a Reuters report that cited an MSNBC interview. She blamed the Bush administration for diverting tax dollars into the Iraq war that might otherwise have been spent on domestic projects such as road and bridge construction and new and improved levees to prevent flooding in New Orleans.

“We’ve spent $500 billion in Iraq, and we have bridges falling down in this country,” she said. “I see a connection between messed-up priorities.”

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