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Law Firm Sues MnDOT for Access to Bridge Info

Author / Coordinator: Mike Kaszuba
Star Tribune
October 2007

A law firm representing victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse has sued the Minnesota Department of Transportation, claiming the agency is withholding key information and giving it only to a company hired by the state to investigate the tragedy.

The lawsuit focuses on MnDOT’s relationship with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, a Chicago firm that was given a $2 million contract almost immediately after the collapse to conduct a separate investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board. An NTSB spokesman said it was unusual for a regulatory agency to enter into such a contract during an NTSB investigation of an accident.

While MnDOT has “totally failed” to supply information regarding the collapse to the victim’s families, the lawsuit maintained, Wiss, Janney has been given key data and “preferred access” to the bridge collapse site.

“It’s a very unusual arrangement that this private group would be given this preferred access almost immediately,” said James Schwebel, an attorney who said he represented roughly 25 victims of the collapse and their families.

“This very contract [with Wiss, Janney] indicates that they will appear as expert witnesses on behalf of the state in any litigation.”

Schwebel said his firm filed the lawsuit after it asked MnDOT for information through the state Data Practices Act but received little from the agency.

The law firm, according to the lawsuit, has asked for a variety of information and exhibits, including diagnostic studies and photos of the bridge and correspondence dating back to its construction in the 1960s.

MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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