Minneapolis A law firm that asked a federal court to grant its experts immediate access to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse site so they can begin their own investigation into what could lead to wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits has been denied that access by a federal judge.
The petition was filed in U.S. District Court on Monday by the law firm of Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, which specializes in personal injury cases.
In the petition, the firm said it's representing three people severely injured in the Aug. 1 collapse and the families of two people who died in the disaster. It did not identify the victims, and attorney James Schwebel declined to reveal them.
"We are in the very preliminary stage on this," Schwebel said before the oral arguments. "We've been retained by several families. We've been contacted by many others. They're obviously wanting to make sure there is some accountability for whoever is culpable for this disaster, and we need to have experts to answer many of these questions for us."
According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota, District Judge Patrick J. Schiltz denied the access less than an hour after hearing oral arguments on the petition. The judge sided with the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that has controlled the site since the collapse.
In his order, Judge Schiltz said, "The government has an urgent interest in recovering the bodies of the victims, clearing the site and dangerous wreckage, reopening the Mississippi River to commerce, and beginning the rebuilding of the bridges as soon as possible."
The order went on to say that "these challenges are daunting enough without the Court turning loose dozens of lawyers, expert witnesses, and investigators on the site."
Nine people were confirmed dead and four were still missing as of Wednesday, while about 100 people were injured in the collapse.
Wrongful death lawsuits must be filed in three years, but the deadline for negligence suits is longer, Schwebel said.
The state's liability is limited to $1 million, but any lawsuits could also target private contractors and their insurers.