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Lawsuit claims state’s consultant knew 35W bridge in dire condition

Star Tribune
June 2010

The engineering firm consulted on the Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed in 2007 conducted a flawed analysis of the bridge’s safety, then recommended repairs when it should have told the state to close the structure, lawyers for victims said in a court filing.

URS Corp. of San Francisco wasn’t simply negligent, lawyers wrote in a memo signaling their request to seek unspecified punitive damages. "URS was paid by taxpayers to make sure the bridge’s ‘structural integrity’ made it safe for the public," the 31-page memo said. "… URS time and time again made deliberate choices that threatened the public’s safety."

Richard Nygaard, one in a consortium of lawyers representing victims, said Tuesday that URS presented the state Department of Transportation with "engineering gobbledegook" instead of a clear warning about the bridge’s deadly condition. "They never did tell the state to close this bridge," Nygaard said.

URS has claimed that it isn’t liable for the collapse, which left 13 people dead and 145 injured, because the bridge’s initial design was flawed. A URS spokesman said the firm had no comment.

To seek punitive damages, the plaintiffs must show the judge by "clear and convincing evidence" that there was a "deliberate disregard" for the safety of the people of Minnesota.

URS documented that the bridge was "clearly overstressed" and that "collapse could be imminent" if a crack developed in a critical bridge structure, the memo said.

The memo accuses the firm of lying and cutting corners to lure the state into retrofitting the old bridge and thereby ensuring the firm more monitoring work.

Despite URS photographs from 2003 of "bowed gusset plates, an engineering red flag," the firm declined to thoroughly analyze the plates, claiming it was "too much work," the memo said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the gusset plates were half as thick as they should have been and that heavy loads on the bridge that day likely led to the collapse.

Comments of key interest

One key to the plaintiffs’ case for punitive damages may be the comments of retired MnDOT engineer Don Flemming, who worked for URS at the time of the collapse. Flemming told his boss on Sept. 1, 2006, that he was concerned URS project engineer Ed Zhou was "trying a little too hard" to tell MnDOT the bridge was safe when "it is clearly overstressed by design standards."

"I feel that the bottom line is that a fatigue analysis does not result in alarming results, but from a strength standpoint the original design does not meet today’s design specifications by a very significant degree," Flemming said, according to the court filing.

The lawyers, who also include Chris Messerly and Phil Sieff, say money was the motive.

"If Zhou estimates a longer service life, he can recommend retrofit of the existing bridge [rather than replacement], and Zhou and URS would be paid handsomely for monitoring the retrofit," the memo said.

In assessing the bridge’s structural integrity through a computer model, URS declined to follow widely accepted engineering standards or common sense in selecting a temperature range to which the bridge was subjected, the motion said.

URS chose a range of 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while the code required a 150-degree range, the memo said.

"Because use of such a limited temperature range did not accurately reflect stresses on the coldest and hottest days in Minneapolis, URS’ choice was not safe," the memo said.

The firm overstated the strength of the bridge and told the state the gussets were in "good condition," the document said.

Zhou analyzed the bowed gusset plates after the collapse and determined they could have been weak enough to cause the bridge failure.

Asked in a deposition whether he would have told the state to close the bridge if he had made the calculations before the collapse, Zhou said, "Hypothetically, yes."

Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund was scheduled to hear the request to seek punitive damages on July 15. A trial is scheduled for March 2011.

At a news conference on another matter, Gov. Tim Pawlenty responded to a question about the lawsuit.

"The bridge fell because of an original design flaw in the 1960s," he said.

"That’s what the [NTSB] has determined, and the people who make allegations, you know, inconsistent with that, I think, are doing it for other reasons."

Staff Writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Rochelle Olson • 612-673-7212

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