35W bridge suit: Engineering firm felt bridge was 'overstressed'

5:09 PM, Jun 29, 2010   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Attorneys for victims of the 35W bridge collapse claim an engineering firm knew the bridge was not safe but did not tell state transportation officials.

Attorneys from two law firms representing many of the victims filed motions Monday seeking punitive damages in their cases against the firm, URS Corporation.

"It's a case, sadly, of a multi-national corporation putting profits ahead of people," said Chris Messerly, an attorney for many of the plaintiffs.

Messerly pointed to an e-mail written by a URS project manager 11 months before the collapse. That e-mail said an engineer was trying too hard to advise the Minnesota Department of Transportation the bridge was OK, "even though it is clearly overstressed by today's design criteria," according to court documents filed Monday.

The e-mail went on to say, "if a significant crack develops in any of the 10 most critical members, collapse could be imminent in a short amount of time, even though the analysis says a crack is unlikely."

Messerly said URS engineers met with state officials five days after that e-mail was written but never told them the bridge was unsafe.

Messerly is an attorney with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law firm, which is representing many bridge collapse victims. A similar motion was filed Monday by Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben, which is representing 34 victims.

URS did not return messages seeking comment Monday.

The bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145 people. Federal investigators concluded underdesigned gusset plates caused the collapse.

But bridge victims filed a suit against URS last year claiming roller bearings at the bottom of the bridge were frozen and rusted, putting undue stress on the beams near the gusset plates. They claim URS should have caught the problem.

In motions filed Monday, attorneys for the victims claim URS photographed deformed gusset plates but did not do enough to calculate the safety impact. The point to another e-mail, written by an engineer in March 2006, which said, "We will not calculate actual capacities of all the connections since that is too much work, although that provides the most accurate results."

"They cut corners all the way around," attorney Richard Nygaard told The Associated Press.

The documents mentioned in Monday's motions were among millions URS handed over to the victims as part of the lawsuit.

Attorneys also allege URS used the wrong mathematical formula to calculate the danger of seized roller bearings, the parts that allowed the bridge to expand and contract with heat and cold.

Paula Coulter, a bridge collapse victim who is still coping with her injuries, is one of the victims seeking punitive damages.

"It's sad," she said. "My life has changed forever because of it."

The case is scheduled to go to trial next year. But a judge will hear the victims' request to include punitive damages next month.

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