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A Legal Analysis of Key Issues in the FIU Bridge Collapse


A Legal Analysis of Key Issues in the FIU Bridge Collapse

On March 15, a long pedestrian bridge under construction over SW 8th Street suddenly collapsed, crushing the passing cars and causing six deaths and numerous injuries. It was a tragic outcome and a reminder of the importance of making safety the absolute top priority in any construction project.

From my perspective as a trial lawyer who is not involved in this case, it appears that a confluence of factors contributed to deadly bridge collapse. Just as an airline crash may be due to a combination of pilot error and malfunctioning equipment, there may be multiple reasons for this catastrophic event.

At least one lawsuit has already been filed in this high-profile case, and it is likely more will follow. But whether the victims and their families will be compensated for their losses – and the amount of potential damages – is yet to be determined.

In analyzing the case from the plaintiff’s perspective, the first consideration is identifying the parties who were involved in the bridge project and thus may have some potential liability. In the private sector, the two key players were Munilla Construction Management (MCM), the general contractor, and Figg Bridge Engineers, which was installing the bridge when it collapsed.

In the public sector, the participants include Florida International University (FIU), which was involved in designing the first-of-its kind pedestrian bridge, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), whose responsibilities typically include traffic control; and the Governor’s Office, which was reportedly involved in the planning process.

However, there were other players that might be involved in the case, including the team that came up with the innovative design for the bridge and the manufacturers of the concrete, cables, and other materials used in the project.

Who was at fault?

Currently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is conducting an extensive investigation into the causes of the bridge collapse, and its findings will play a crucial role in determining the potential criminal or civil liability in this case.

While the Miami-Dade County Police homicide division is conducting an investigation, it appears unlikely that criminal charges will be filed. Instead, the victims of the bridge collapse will need to rely on their civil lawsuits for any compensation and full answers from those responsible.

According to published reports, the project’s lead engineer found cracks in the concrete two days before the collapse, but did not consider that to be a safety issue. He reported the problem by leaving a voicemail message to an FDOT representative, who was out of the office and didn’t hear the warning until after the collapse occurred.

A NTSB official said that workers were tightening the tension on the cables holding the 174-foot-long span over busy SW 8th Street just north of the FIU campus when the bridge collapsed, five days after the prefabricated bridge had been lifted into place.

As investigators review the physical evidence, interview participants and talk with witnesses, they will be looking for answers to a number of questions that will be crucial to the civil litigation:

  • Did the cracks in the concrete contribute to the collapse?
  • Was the innovative post-tensioning design and structure of the bridge part of the problem?
  • Were mistakes made during the bridge construction and installation process?
  • Why were vehicles allowed to pass under the bridge while it was still being installed?

In other words, which of the parties made mistakes along the way that led to the deadly accident.

Apportionment of fault

For victims of the bridge collapse, a legal concept called “apportionment of fault” is likely to play a major role in determining the amount of potential compensation for their losses. Why is this so important?

Under state law, the State of Florida, FDOT and FIU enjoy virtual sovereign immunity from personal injury, wrongful death and other types of negligence-related lawsuits. Their damages are capped at $200,000 per claim and $300,000 per incident. Therefore, the total liability exposure of the public entities most closely involved in the design, planning and traffic control aspects of the bridge collapse would be at most $300,000.

Let’s say the trial lawyers representing the families of the six people who died bring wrongful death lawsuits for $1 million each, a conservative estimate. Then add another hypothetical $4 million for the injured victims in the case, for a total of $10 million in damages.

It would then be up the jury in each case to determine whether or not the plaintiffs were entitled to compensation, the amount of damages, and how the responsibility for damages would be allocated.

To simplify the calculations, assume that these individual cases are consolidated and the court rules that the victims are entitled to $10 million in total damages. If the private parties in the case, such as MCM and Figg Bridge Engineers are found to be 100 percent responsible, then the plaintiffs would be legally entitled to recover the entire $10 million.

But if the court found the public entities were 50 percent responsible, then the plaintiffs would only be able to recover $5 million from the private parties and $300,000 from the state. That’s a huge difference in the compensation for the victims.

As a result, you can expect to see plenty of finger pointing among the various entities involved in the case. MCM and Figg are likely to emphasize the state’s role in the bridge collapse in an effort to reduce their financial exposure. At the same time, the Governor’s office, FIU and FDOT are likely to allege that problems with the materials and installation process handled by the private contractors were the causes of the collapse.

Regardless of how the apportionment of fault issue plays out, the bridge collapse victims would still need to be able to collect from the responsible parties. That means MCM, Figg and any other private-sector participants would need to have adequate insurance to cover their potential liabilities.

In any case, it seems clear that this was a tragedy that could have been prevented by greater attention to safety throughout the design, construction and installation process. The lives of passing motorists should never have been put at risk.

John Elliott Leighton is a board certified trial lawyer who focuses his practice on catastrophic personal injury and medical malpractice cases at Leighton Law, P.A. www.leightonlaw.com john@leightonlaw.com

 

 

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