Minn. court refuses to block state claim against design firm over Minneapolis bridge collapse

A design firm that tried to shield itself from lawsuits over a deadly Minneapolis bridge collapse has been dismissed from one company's claim, but still faces litigation from the state, Minnesota's Court of Appeals ruled in separate opinions Tuesday.

Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., had argued that it was not liable in the 2007 tragedy in part because too much time had passed since the bridge was built in the 1960s. Jacobs argued that a state law put a 10-year limit on liability even for structures meant to last a century.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed in dismissing claims filed by engineering firm URS Corp., but allowed the state's claims to go forward.

The difference, according to law professor Douglas McFarland, is that the state had a contract with Jacobs' predecessor company that included an "indemnity" agreement — ultimately protecting the state against losses.

"With regard to URS, once the 10 years passed, then Jacobs was done, off the hook," said McFarland, a professor at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul. But under state statute, he said, situations involving these types of indemnity agreements aren't subject to time limits.

The appeals court judges wrote that changes made to state law in 2007 — months before the bridge collapsed — made claims like the state's retroactive "indefinitely into the past." The judges also noted that the state's 1962 contract with Jacobs' predecessor company protected it against any losses arising from the work.

But in the URS case, the judges agreed with Jacobs' argument that it does not share any liability with the San Francisco-based engineering firm that was hired to do consulting work on the bridge. Under the law considered in that case, the judges wrote that well-established public policy freed Jacobs — which acquired the now-defunct company that designed the bridge — from liability back in 1977.

"Because Jacobs cannot be held liable for damages to the plaintiffs arising out of the bridge collapse, Jacobs and URS do not share a common liability. ... Consequently, URS may not seek contribution from Jacobs," the judges wrote.

URS said it was disappointed by Tuesday's ruling and was considering whether to appeal further.

Neither an attorney for Jacobs nor a company official immediately returned messages seeking comment.

The Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis during the evening rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that a design flaw — gusset plates that were too thin — was a key cause.

The rulings came one day after the announcement that URS has agreed to pay more than $52.4 million to settle lawsuits brought by survivors and the families of those killed. That settlement — agreed to more than a week ago but kept quiet until Monday — resolves the last major piece of litigation brought by victims.

All told, the state and two of its contractors will have paid out $100 million to victims' families and survivors of the bridge collapse.