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'They've All Got to Be Sweating Tacks': Attorneys Discuss Liability Over FIU Bridge Collapse

[caption id="attachment_15884" align="alignright" width="620"] Emergency personnel responds to a collapsed pedestrian bridge connecting Florida International University on Thursday, March 15, 2018 in the Miami area. The brand-new pedestrian bridge collapsed onto a highway crushing at least five vehicles. Several people were seen being loaded into ambulances and authorities said they were searching for people. (Roberto Koltun/The Miami Herald via AP)[/caption] Expect a lot of finger-pointing in what attorneys say will likely be multimillion-dollar litigation arising from Thursday's bridge collapse at Florida International University. The 174-foot bridge weighing 950 tons collapsed onto a state road, Southwest Eighth Street, near FIU’s campus in Sweetwater. It crushed several lanes of traffic below, killing at least six people, according to death toll reports released as crews continued rescue and recovery efforts Friday. Now, it will be up to courts and investigators to figure out what went wrong and who's to blame, as the university, state Department of Transportation, engineers, contractors, designers and others involved in the project go on the offensive. [caption id="attachment_15887" align="alignright" width="245"] James R. Schwebel[/caption] "They’ve all got to be sweating tacks. They’ll be very very nervous about their liability," said James R. Schwebel, a Minneapolis personal injury attorney who helped win $52.4 million for plaintiffs after a Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007. "They’ll have insurance coverage, but will they have enough? When the dust settles, the scene will be swarming with all sorts of engineering firms hired by the parties involved, starting with the state of Florida. ...Typically they’re all going to be pointing the finger at each other.” South Florida personal injury attorneys say the most likely first step is a root-cause analysis to determine the specific failure that brought down the bridge. That evaluation will consider design, structural integrity and construction, as well as pinpointing which company made specific decisions about the project. "I would look directly at the contractor and bridge engineer, and I would look most closely at the construction firm,” said Stuart N. Ratzan, the Ratzan Law Group Miami shareholder who in 2017 won a $45 million verdict against a construction company over a crash on Interstate 75. "But I would also say for any root cause analysis, you go into it with an open mind and you get to the bottom of it." The $14.3 million structure was meant to be a walkway that allowed pedestrians to avoid navigating the busy street below. It was pre-fabricated using new construction and design technology, and transported to the construction site for installation. The idea was to safeguard the FIU community, and complete the project with minimal disruption to traffic. But Thursday's tragedy showed the opposite happened. "I believe the focus needs to be right now on the victims of this terrible tragedy and their families," said David Haber, a Miami attorney whose recent victories include a $22.5 million settlement in a Palm Beach County construction defect case. "It is unfortunate and sadly ironic that this alleged 'safer' technique of building bridges, which was intended to save lives during construction, turns out to be a death trap." Going forward, prospective plaintiff lawyers will likely build their case around individualized losses, attempting to assign blame while demonstrating the extent of the victims' or survivors' suffering. [caption id="attachment_15886" align="alignleft" width="199"] Scott P. Schlesinger.[/caption] "I can tell you ... that there is absolute liability. It’s 100 percent carelessness,” said personal injury lawyer Scott Schlesinger. "The damages are substantial, unfortunately. ... It' so individualized, it’s better to just gather up the evidence and be ready to provide the meaning of the lost lives to the jury. The whole idea of what we do is that we humanize it.” By Friday morning, some of the groups involved had started to speak out. The Florida Department of Transportation, for instance, noted the bridge was a local agency project, not an FDOT venture. The designer, contractor and construction engineering, and inspection functions were all under contract with FIU, it noted. In a statement Thursday night, FDOT said it played a limited role. It issued a permit for traffic control during installation of the bridge last Saturday, acted as a pass-through for federal funding, and provided $57,000 in state funding; and conducted a routine preliminary review. It also authorized the university to use the aerial space above the state road to build a structure—a structure it said "FIU and its contractors are solely responsible to inspect and maintain at the university’s sole expense." Florida law limits the liability of government agencies to $200,000, or up to $300,000 if the case involves multiple agencies. But attorneys say all the public agencies involved in the project will likely end up as defendants alongside the private companies in civil law suits stemming from the bridge's collapse. "Whoever brings a lawsuit on behalf of the victims and their families is going to bring everybody in," said Miami commercial and corporate litigator Jason Kellogg, partner at Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman. "It seems like there will be a high likelihood of finger-pointing because of the novelty of this bridge design." Meanwhile, Bolton Perez & Associates, the project's construction engineering and inspection firm, issued a statement Friday expressing "deep sadness." "Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and their families, including those members of our own Bolton Perez & Associates family who were injured yesterday," it said. "We intend to cooperate in every way we can to assist local, state and National Transportation Safety Board investigators in determining the cause of this terrible incident and to help prevent any future tragedies of this kind." MCM, the company that built the bridge offsite and transported it to FIU, said it's cooperating with federal investigators. "Our thoughts are with the families and victims," it said in a statement. "We have been in business for more than 35 years, and safety has always been our number one priority.  We are just heartbroken." Project designer Tallahassee-based FIGG Engineering Group did not respond to requests for comment by press time.