April 23, 2018

It has been a little more than a month since a bridge collapsed over a busy Southwest Eighth Street in a Miami suburb, killing six people and injuring others. There continues to be many questions about the cause of the incident on March 15, 2018 near the Sweetwater campus of Florida International University. The $14.2 million pedestrian bridge was intended to allow students to safely cross from FIU’s main campus over a six-lane highway to a cluster of off-campus housing.

Families and friends of the victims have recently filed lawsuits. The first lawsuit related to the collapse was filed in court on behalf of cyclist Marquise Hepburn, who was seriously injured while passing by that day.  The lawsuit alleges negligence by FIGG Bridge Engineers and Munilla Construction Management, the two firms involved in the construction of the bridge. The lawsuit said 24-year-old Hepburn is seeking damages in excess of $15,000 from the firms.

A civil lawsuit was also filed on behalf of FIU student Emily Panagos, 21, whose car was crushed in the collapse. Panagos survived the incident.

Another lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of victim Rolando Fraga, 60, who died in the collapse.

The families of Alberto Arias, 53, and Osvaldo Gonzalez, 57, similarly signaled that they were filing a wrongful death lawsuit. The men, who were partners for more than 20 years, both died inside their truck in the collapse.

The family of Alexa Duran — at 18 the youngest victim of the bridge collapse — filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the construction firm, Munilla Construction Management, FIGG Bridge Engineers, and other subcontractors on the project.

The lawsuits emerged after the Florida Department of Transportation released a transcript of a call made by the project’s lead engineer, telling state officials that he had spotted cracks in the structure.  Named defendants include multiple companies that worked on the manufacture and installation of the failed span.

None of the suits names FIU, the City of Sweetwater, or the Florida Department of Transportation because of a law giving them “sovereign immunity,” which means lawyers must give the entities 180 days notice before filing a lawsuit.  Stated another way, six months and a day later, they’ll likely be on the receiving end of a lawsuit too.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott suspended millions in federal funds to the private firms that designed and installed the bridge. In a statement, Scott said the money would be withheld until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation.  “Before another dollar is spent on this bridge, we must know exactly what happened,” Scott explained.

What can plaintiffs expect going forward? Investigating what caused the pedestrian bridge collapse near FIU will be a massive undertaking. Miami-Dade Circuit Court will likely consolidate some forms of discovery. Plaintiffs will need to hire experts and investigate what might have gone wrong with the design, construction, installation, and testing.  Plaintiffs will also seek to utilize information obtained by the NTSB during their investigation, especially their physical examination of evidence as well as their reports.

Often, these cases come down to which side has the more convincing and credible expert witnesses to testify on their behalf. If you have questions about litigation and construction law, call Corless Barfield Trial Group locally at 813-258-4998 or toll-free at 877-517-5595.