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I35W bridge victims seek punitive damages

Victims of the deadly 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse took legal steps Monday to seek punitive damages against an engineering firm that evaluated the bridge’s structural integrity before it fell.

Attorneys representing 34 victims and surviving family members filed documents asking a judge to allow them to seek punitive damages in their case against URS Corp. The filing said the San Francisco-based engineering company deliberately disregarded the bridge victims’ safety.

The victims and families are already suing the company for actual damages. Under state law, the petition for punitive damages must be made later.

A spokesman for URS didn’t immediately respond to voice mail and e-mail messages. The company has said in the past that it was not involved in the design or building of the bridge or any later construction work, including the resurfacing being done when the bridge collapsed.

The Interstate 35W bridge buckled and fell into the Mississippi River during the evening rush hour August 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145.

URS had a long-standing contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to evaluate the structural integrity of the 40-year-old bridge and recommend ways to shore it up. The company and state reached a $5M settlement in March, with neither side admitting liability or fault for the collapse.

The victims’ claim says URS failed to determine the strength of plates called gussets that connected steel beams.

Victims’ attorney Richard Nygaard said URS also failed to follow guidelines for bridges set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials when it evaluated the bridge. His filing says if those guidelines had been followed, URS would have had to tell state transportation officials to close the bridge immediately.

“They cut corners all the way around,” Nygaard said.

A federal investigation concluded that the bridge collapsed because of the failure of undersized gusset plates stressed by construction materials, rush-hour traffic and modifications made to the bridge over the years.

Hennepin County Judge Deborah Hedlund will hear the victims’ request on July 15.

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