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PCI Preparing to Sue Minn. for I-35W Bridge Collapse

Tue March 25, 2008 - National Edition

ST. PAUL (AP) Progressive Contractors Inc., the construction company whose crews were resurfacing the Interstate 35W bridge when it fell, is preparing a possible lawsuit against the state for failing to keep its workers safe.

The basis of such a lawsuit would be that the state breached its contract with the St. Michael-based company, attorney Kyle Hart told The Associated Press March 14.

“They’re required to provide you with a safe place to work, and if the bridge was defectively designed and defectively maintained, we could have a breach of contract against the state,” Hart said.

The AP obtained a legal notice that Progressive filed with Attorney General Lori Swanson. The notice briefly outlines potential claims against the state.

Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lucy Kender declined to comment or make someone else available, saying it would be inappropriate to speak about potential litigation.

Progressive had a $2.4 million contract with the department for work on the bridge that included breaking up pavement with jackhammers and mixing and pouring concrete.

Progressive has been mentioned frequently as a target of potential lawsuits from collapse victims. Hart said the company has received “dozens” of letters from victims’ attorneys cautioning them to preserve records that might become evidence in court.

“The whole situation is awkward,” Hart said. “It’s unfortunate because we’re in the role of being a likely defendant, but we’re also a victim, at least we feel that we are.”

The company had an 18-member crew working on the bridge when it fell Aug. 1, and employee Greg Jolstad died along with a dozen motorists. Among the 145 people injured were at least two other construction workers whose attorneys have filed notices of potential lawsuits against the state.

Hart said the notice he filed was “purely precautionary.” He said further legal action would have to wait until federal investigators determine what caused the collapse and his independent experts can examine all of the evidence.

The National Transportation Safety Board has examined the placement and weight of Progressive’s equipment and materials on the bridge leading up to the failure, and has not formally determined whether the construction played a role in the collapse.

A breach of contract lawsuit would free Progressive from the state’s general liability limits, which stood at $300,000 per person or $1 million per incident last year, Hart said.

The Legislature is working on a compensation fund for the victims. But they might end up getting no more than $400,000 apiece from the state, depending on what comes out of a House-Senate conference committee. Those who lost family members or suffered severe injuries say that’s not enough.

Minneapolis attorney James Schwebel, who is representing a group of victims, said he’s not surprised that Progressive would consider legal action against the state. He said the contractor may have a legitimate case, but that doesn’t mean victims wouldn’t also have valid claims against Progressive.

“Simply because we have targeted Progressive as a potential defendant in this case does not mean that somebody was not even more at fault, for example, URS or the state or even the designer,” Schwebel said.

URS Corp. is the consultant the state Transportation Department hired to conduct in-depth inspections and analysis of the bridge before recommending ways to deal with the aging span.

Schwebel said he expects many more claims and counterclaims stemming from the bridge failure.

“There were all sorts of people that suffered losses in addition to the victims that were actually on that bridge,” he said. “Progressive suffered losses, people nearby had their businesses disrupted — there’s a lot of people that will be filing claims here.”

He added: “The best defense is a good offense.”

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