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

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.

“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.”

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