ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – A California design firm asked the Minnesota Supreme Court on Monday to block the company from being sued by the state over the deadly 2007 interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people.
Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., contends that it isn’t liable because too much time had passed since the bridge was built in the 1960s. The firm argues that state law puts a 10-year limit on liability and notes that the state had a 1962 contract with the bridge’s designer, a now-defunct company that Jacobs acquired in 1999.
“My client never touched the bridge,” James O’Connor, a Minneapolis attorney for Jacobs, told the six Supreme Court justices who heard the appeal. “The issue here is indemnity.”
Minnesota Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, who is representing the state, called the collapse “a horrific event” and urged the court to allow the lawsuit to continue. Gilbert argued that state lawmakers changed the liability law when they approved a compensation package for bridge collapse survivors.
Justice Helen M. Meyer questioned whether engineers or contractors would do business in Minnesota if they knew their immunity from lawsuits might be retroactively removed. While Gilbert pointed out the compensation legislation didn’t specifically name Jacobs, Meyer said, “This is the Legislature saying claims against this company can now be made.”
Along with the 13 people who died, 145 people were injured when the Mississippi River bridge broke apart during evening rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007. The Minnesota Court of Appeals allowed the state’s claims to go forward in August, prompting the company’s appeal to the state’s highest court. No decision was made Monday.
In a separate case, the Supreme Court also heard an appeal Monday from engineering firm URS Corp., which was hired to do consulting work on the bridge before its collapse. San Francisco-based URS is trying to sue Jacobs.
A three-judge appeals court panel tossed the lawsuit in August, ruling that public policy freed Jacobs from liability in 1977 and that Jacobs didn’t share any liability with URS.
Jocelyn Knoll, a Minneapolis attorney for URS, argued that while Jacobs’ 10-year liability may have expired, Jacobs still shared a common liability with URS and should be allowed to seek money damages from Jacobs. Knoll noted that Jacobs wasn’t sued by bridge collapse survivors, “so the flood gates (of lawsuits) did not open” for Jacobs.
Kirk Kolbo, another attorney for Jacobs, countered that Jacobs had no common liability with URS and that any liability had extinguished “long before the bridge collapsed.”
The court also took that case under advisement.
URS had a long-standing contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to evaluate the structural integrity of the 40-year-old Interstate 35W bridge and recommend ways to shore it up before it fell. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that too-thin gusset plates were a key cause of the collapse.
The state also sued URS, but both sides agreed to a $5 million settlement last year that averted a trial, which could have opened URS to punitive damages. Neither side admitted any liability or fault.
All told, the state and two of its contractors will have paid out at least $100 million to the families of those killed and injured.
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