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Let the Finger Pointing Begin: Who is Responsible for the FIU Bridge Collapse?

[DISCLAIMER: In this post, we are going to name probable defendants based on available information. We are not determining liability or placing blame.]

One attribute of legal education is viewing an event and knowing, without a doubt, litigation will ensue; it is a blessing and a curse! I had this experience yesterday as I watched the horrific news unfold about the Florida International University bridge collapse. Issue spotting and parties were being identified within minutes after I received notice a bridge had failed in Florida.

For many catastrophic injury and wrongful death attorneys, this is a dream case. This sounds bad, I know, but hear me out. The result of this disaster is appalling and fault is abundant. None of that fault can be attributed to the victims. They were going about their day – sitting in their cars, stopped at a red light, probably admiring the new bridge – when the bridge collapsed on top of their vehicles. The victims did nothing wrong. They have no-fault (contributory, comparative, or otherwise) and, for certain, someone else is to blame.

The list of defendants will be ample. I’ve listed some of the probable defendants below. Don’t worry, these companies and institutions will be doing their own finger pointing. Whether we see it reported in the news or not, the blame game has already begun. To limit their liability, these defendants will point to others as responsible for this catastrophe, and the others will point back and point to others.

What we know:

In the City of Sweetwater, Florida, a pedestrian overpass at Florida International University (FIU) collapsed onto a notoriously busy road below. The Miami-Dade fire department confirmed six people are dead as a result. According to this article from Yahoo News, “at least eight vehicles were trapped in the wreckage of the 950-ton bridge.” Evidently, the bridge was constructed on the side of the road and was installed last Saturday.

“To keep the inevitable disruption of traffic associated with bridge construction to a minimum, the 174-foot portion of the bridge was built adjacent to Southwest 8th Street using a method called Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC). It was driven into its perpendicular position across the road by a rig in only six hours on Saturday, according to a statement released by the university.

The $14.2 million bridge was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous measure by the National Hurricane Center, and built to last 100 years, the university said.”

We can safely say the bridge did not live up to the purpose of its design. It didn’t have an opportunity to be hurricane tested because it was unable to remain standing for a whole week.

Possible Defendants: Anyone Involved in the Design, Construction, Inspection, and Erection of the Bridge

Where do I start? There are so many possibilities. Here is the list I’ve developed so far:

  • Munilla Construction Management (built and installed the bridge)
  • FIGG Engineering Group (bridge design, engineering and construction services)
  • Barnhart Crane and Rigging (moved the bridge into place)
  • BDI (structural testing and monitoring services)
  • City of Sweetwater
  • Miami-Dade County
  • Florida International University
  • Florida Department of Transportation
  • Materials Manufacturers (concrete, steel, etc.)

There will probably be other subcontractors and unknown parties who will be added to this list. The city, county, and state probably conducted inspections at different times during the design and construction of the bridge, so failures may be attributed to the municipalities as well.

Where Experts Come In:

What we have in this case is a bridge collapse. Failure analysis is the technical phrase used to determine why the bridge collapsed. The NTSB is sending their own investigative team to determine the cause for the failure. In litigation, both Plaintiff and Defense will retain a variety of experts to conduct their own analysis. Experts for all parties will have many questions to address. Here are some of the issues that come to mind immediately…

Were there defects in the construction of the bridge? If construction defects are identified, they may indicate a breach in the standard of care used by Munilla Construction Management during building of the overpass.

What about the design of the walkway? Did FIGG Engineering follow appropriate standards in designing the structure? Design and structural engineers will have to evaluate errors in the specifications which may have left the platform in a weakened and unsafe state.  This will also play a role for BDI who monitored the installation and later posted this picture, on Twitter:

 

bridge-collapse.PNG

 

Was the platform moved and installed according to crane and rigging policies and standards? Had there been a failure to secure the pieces of the bridge when moving it into place? Had the installation process added stress to components unnecessarily? This will all have to be analyzed to see if Barnhart Crane and Rigging had breached their standards of care during installation. Again, this will play a role for BDI, as they believed the move was a “job well done.”

By images and videos available in the news, we can see significant concrete slabs on top of the damaged vehicles. It will have to be analyzed and determined if the materials themselves had failed. Was the concrete, steel, or other material defective? Was it built to specifications? If not, what is the acceptable industry-standard deviation? If so, a product liability lawsuit against the materials manufacturers may also be appropriate.

All of these items will come back to the municipalities involved. Why did they retain the above-named companies? Was there a history of safety concerns with any of the firms? Were they overlooked? Did the municipalities fail to properly inspect the construction efforts? The Miami Herald covers some items about Munilla Construction Management and FIGG Engineering (and their respective work histories) in this article.

Traffic and pedestrian safety standards also come to mind as issues that may be addressed in upcoming litigation. Was there an alternative traffic route that could have been used until construction was completed? Were traffic safety procedures followed for the installation of an overpass?

There are many questions to be answered. For the victims, those answers will not ease the pain of losing loved ones. But the one guarantee we have is that one or more parties are responsible and those parties will be busy pointing the finger at each other and at others.