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Construction Law Today

Minnesoata I-35 Bridge Collapse Engineer’s Request To Get Out of Lawsuit Denied

Posted in Minnesota, Negligence (Architectual and Engineering), States, Statute of Limitations, Statute of Repose

bridge-collapse2007.jpgLast week Judge Deborah Hedlund hearing lawsuits arising from collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota rendered an order denying an engineer’s motion to be dismissed from one of those lawsuits.

The Backstory

The State of Minnesota contracted with Sverdrup & Parcel and Associates, Inc. to design the original bridge in 1962.  Construction of the bridge was complete in 1967.  Then, through a series of post-completion name changes and mergers, the Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc. purchased Sverdrup & Parcel. From here on in I’m going to refer to Sverdrup & Parcel, the Jacobs Group, and all of the names in between together as the “original engineer”.

Before the collapse, URS Corp. (the “later engineer”) and Progressive Contractors, Inc. (the “contractor”) were both working on maintenance for the bridge.  After the bridge collapsed, the State and others sued the later engineer and the contractor.  They looked back to the original engineer’s design and decided part of the blame also belongs to the original engineer too.  So they sued the original engineer for contribution and indemnification.  Basically, the later engineer alleged that the original engineer was at least partly to blame for the bridge collapse.  And because the original engineer’ was partly to blame, the original engineer should reimburse the later engineer and the contractor for what they must respectively pay-out to the State and others.


The Arguments and Decisions

Judge Hedlund.jpgThe
original engineer asked Judge Hedlund to dismiss the current engineer’s
and the contractor’s lawsuits.  Their reason?  Back in 1965 the
Minnesota Legislature passed a statute of repose
that required all lawsuits for design or construction defects to be
filed within 10 years after substantial completion of the project (the “1965 Statute”).
The I-35 bridge project was completed in 1967.  So the 10 year repose
period under the 1965 Statute started in 1967 and expired in 1977.
Because the current engineer and contractor didn’t file their lawsuit
until 2009, the original engineer suggested to Judge Hedlund that the
lawsuits were filed too late and she should dismiss them.

The
later engineer and the contractor countered.  They told Judge Hedlund
that although the original engineer was off the hook under the 1965
Statute, in May 2007 (3 months before the bridge collapse) the Minnesota Legislature amended the 1965 Statute to exclude claims for contribution and indemnity from the 10 years after substantial completion deadline (the “2007 Amendment”).
Without that deadline the later engineer and the contractor had timely
filed their lawsuits and Judge Hedlund should dismiss neither.

The original engineer replied back that:

  • The 2007 Amendment shouldn’t be applied to retroactively revive claims that, under the 1965 Statute, died in 1977, and
  • The 2007 Amendment is unconstitutional

Thumbnail image for Denied Stamp.jpgBut Judge Hedlund rejected both of these arguments and denied the original engineer’s request to dismiss the lawsuits.

The
contractor also claimed that they qualify as an “agent” of the state
within under the  indemnification terms of the 1962 contract between
the original engineer and the State.  So, the contractor said, they’re
a a third-party beneficiary of that indemnification provision and
should be allowed to enforce it directly against the original
engineer.  Judge Hedlund decided that because the indemnification was
ambiguous regarding whether the contractor qualified as an agent of the
State, there would have to be more evidence to make a final decision
and it was too early to dismiss the contractor’s indemnification
lawsuit.

How Does This Affect You?

  • If you’re a design professional, contractor (prime or sub), or material supplier….
  • This decision is a reminder that what the legislature gives in a statute of repose, the legislature can take away too.
  • You
    need to keep track of what’s going on in the legislatures of the states
    here you work and want to work.  Look for news and alerts from your
    lawyers and trade associations – American Institute of Architects, Associated General Contractors of America – especially your state and local chapters.
  • Prepare
    contingency plans for how you and your professionals will respond if
    you lose protection under a statute of repose.  Your lawyers can help
    you estimate just  how much protection you stand to lose.  And you’ll
    need to talk to your accountants about how much, if anything, to add to
    reserves to fund revived contingent liabilities.
  • While changes in a statute of repose can hurt you, they can
    help you too.  It helped the latest engineer and the contractor in this
    case.  Maybe they’ll settle with the original engineer and that
    settlement will cushion some of the blow they(and their insurers) take in paying the State and others.
  • If
    you’re an owner, a change in a statute of repose could remove an
    impregnable defense defense.  But these changes don’t come easy and
    they don’t come often.  And they may not be as good as you first
    think.  Be careful!  The changes to the statute of repose in the 2007 Amendment were very narrow.  They revived only a very narrow class of
    claims – contribution and indemnity.

Tip to Brian Bakst of the Associated Press for first reporting on Judge Hedlund’s decision.

 

  • Paul Boyne, PE

    So insane. The State broke the bridge with 40 years of neglect. Hard to implicate the design since it stood for 40 years, must be a way for lawyers to make money. State of MN owned the bridge, was responsible for it, did not take care of it and is looking for scapegoats. URS was not negligent, did not breach any contract. There was no ‘responsible’ person in the State organization??? Perhaps that is the smoking gun. Watch this blow up in MN’s face. Taxpayers were defrauded by their own government, deaths were caused by the State, not the engineers. Of course, piling on 600k lbs on the center span along with the overweight decking did not help things….certainly not the designer’s error. But don’t apply logic where state lawyers are involved.
    Insane, un-American and culpable.
    pb

  • Carl Trucker

    The State is quite hypocritical. The bridge rating was in the bottom 4% of all bridges in the country. It was eligible for federal replacement funding since 1991. The lazy beaur-o-crats of MnDOT must find it easier to let things collapse than go through the effort of applying for available money to replace failed infrastructure. Of course the lawyers would not make any money if MnDOT did their job professionally. Really not obvious what the point of suing URS is…..politics???

  • Joe Plumber

    Curious how if the blog master can address this contradiction: No professional engineers are involved in the work on the bridge on 1 Aug 07. The MnDot Inspector nods on putting eight piles of sand and gravel in basically a point load right on top of U10. PCI is a subcontractor with no oversight, no approved rigging plan, loading plan or work plan for the job. No PE’s in sight. MnDOT has plenty of PE’s. Not one signs off approval on work method. Note there were four (4) state attorney signatures on the State lawsuit against URS and PCI. Yes, four.
    Now, how can the professional engineers at MnDOT consent to the State Lawsuit given the rule: 1805.0200 PERSONAL CONDUCT.Subpart 1. Public confidence and personal integrity. A licensee shall avoid any act which may diminish public confidence in the profession and shall, at all times, conduct himself or herself, in all relations with clients and the public, so as to maintain its reputation for professional integrity.
    Seems like all MnDOT PE’s should be in front of the Board for disciplinary action.
    Also, how can MnDOT PE’s provide statements to the State Attorney’s for the lawsuit when the rules state: 1805.0500 FALSE OR MALICIOUS STATEMENTS.
    A licensee shall make no false or malicious statements which may have the effect, directly or indirectly, or by implication, of injuring the personal or professional reputation or business of another member of the profession.
    Seems like MnDOT PE’s are breaking the rules and the state attorney’s lawsuit is conspiring to break the rules.
    Implicating URS is scandalous at best and fraudulent at worst.
    Somewhere the law has gone really wrong.