Bridge victims fund could shelter U

The University may receive legal protection for a 2001 survey saying the bridge was safe.

Anna Ewart

State legislators are debating a bill that could end up protecting the University from potential legal claims stemming from a 2001 study on the Interstate 35W bridge, which concluded replacing the bridge wasn’t necessary.

The bill, currently in conference committee, would create a roughly $40 million collapse victim compensation fund. However, a section in the Senate’s version would also prevent the University from being sued by anyone who accepted the compensation.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was the lead author of the Senate bill, which uses a definition of “state” that includes the University and other entities. However, Latz said the House bill doesn’t appear to offer the same protection.

Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel, said he discussed the bill with Latz.

Rotenberg said he’d prefer the University be protected, but it isn’t something he’s too worried about, adding that the University hasn’t been sued over the 2001 study, and hasn’t been lobbying for the legislation.

“We are lobbying on many pieces of legislation all the time,” Rotenberg said. “It’s not like we’re bashful.”

Dick Nygaard, an attorney representing some of the victims, said he’s heard talk about possible legal action against the University stemming from the study.

Other parties that worked on the bridge should be liable, he said, but he doesn’t know if the University has anything to worry about.

“The problem is the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has put a blanket of secrecy over everything,” Nygaard said. “If they would allow us access to the documents and to the bridge parts, we could make a conclusion.”

Paul Bergson, a University research fellow who worked on the study, said researchers were hired to look at fatigue cracking – not gusset plates – on the bridge.

So far, the NTSB has identified gusset plates as a possible collapse cause but is still investigating.

Bill Donohue, the University’s deputy general counsel, said individual researchers would be protected under this type of legislation as long as the study was part of their employment, which appears to be the case.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation sponsored the study, and its principal investigator, Robert Dexter, has since died.

No modifications were made to the bridge as a result of the study, but it was recommended that inspections continue, Bergson said.