By Patrick Thornton
Attorney Dick Nygaard says he has never had a case where an expert has concluded a company was so mistaken in its representation of the facts as the one he is trying now.
Last week Nygaard filed a motion to seek punitive damages against URS Corporation, the engineering company that was hired to evaluate the structural integrity of the 35W bridge that collapsed in 2007. Thirteen people were killed and more than a hundred were injured in the collapse. Nygaard represents 34 of the victims and their families. He said it is one of the strongest cases he’s had in his career.
Nygaard said he is pursuing the case as an engineering malpractice claim against URS. In his motion, Nygaard argued that URS’ deliberate disregard for safety resulted in the deaths and injuries and that the company knew the bridge did not meet safety standards and then tried to convince the state of Minnesota that the bridge was safe. Nygaard wants Judge Deborah Hedlund to grant his motion for unspecified punitive damages. Nygard’s motion will be heard July 15. He said there aren’t many examples of similar cases in Minnesota, but the state statute is very clear. He said he has a jury instruction that he is holding on to in the event the judge grants his motion.
“I did defense work a long time and this is one of the most glaring cases of misrepresentation and disregard for people’s safety I have seen,” Nygaard said. “In my opinion, this is a cover-up.”
To win the motion, Nygaard must prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that there was a “deliberate disregard” on the part of URS for the safety of the public and in their handling of the safety of the bridge.
Matt Drewes, a construction attorney, said the high threshold of the statute means Nygaard must almost find a smoking gun that shows URS was in the wrong; otherwise it will be challenging to convince a judge.
“In [these] cases it’s not often we find the evidence that someone knowingly used a poor product or chose not to follow up on safety procedures for the sake of the almighty dollar,” said Drewes, an attorney at Thomson Nybeck in Bloomington.
Drewes said he hasn’t seen all the evidence, but said it looks like the plaintiffs have proof that the engineering firm had information that it neglected to follow up on. He said public opinion is also on the plaintiffs’ side.
“This wasn’t a tree that fell in the middle of the forest with no one around to see it,” he said.