Survivor of FIU bridge collapse sues design-construction firms

Two days after the last victim’s body was removed from a collapsed bridge near Florida International University, the first civil lawsuit stemming from the tragedy has been filed — and it claims reckless negligence on the part of the companies who oversaw the bridge’s design and construction.

Marquise Rashaad Hepburn, a 24-year-old resident of Miami-Dade County, was “seriously injured” on his way to work as he rode his bicycle underneath the pedestrian bridge spanning Southwest Eighth Street near the West Miami-Dade campus of Florida International University, according to a formal complaint filed Monday morning in Miami-Dade circuit court.

Following a stress-test of the bridge, which had sustained cracking days before, the massive, 174-foot concrete slab came crashing down just before 2 p.m. on Thursday. The eight-lane segment of the Tamiami Trail below remained open during the testing.

The driver of a car trying to avoid falling concrete swerved into Hepburn on the southern end of the span. Hepburn survived the crash and the collapse, but was hospitalized with undisclosed injuries.

Six people died in the collapse, including motorists, passengers and one construction worker. Five victims were pulled from the rubble on Friday and Saturday, while one died at a local hospital.

Many of their vehicles were flattened and left unrecognizable.

Hepburn hired the personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan, based in Orlando, and is suing the companies involved in the design, construction and oversight of the bridge “who undertook and allowed inherently dangerous construction activities to proceed without necessary safety precautions.”

Among those listed in Hepburn’s complaint are FIGG Bridge Engineers and Munilla Construction Management, who acted as a unified design-build team for the $14.2 million project. Also named are Bolton Perez & Associates, the project’s consulting engineer; Louis Berger, which conducted an independent peer review of the construction, and Network Engineering Services. FIU is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Hepburn is suing for damages in excess of $15,000, exclusive of interest, costs and attorneys’ fees. His complaint argues that FIGG, MCM and BPA failed to adequately recognize the “imminent danger” posed by the cracks spotted on the bridge, and that traffic should have been diverted from under the bridge while workers conducted stress testing, or post-tensioning, on the north end of the span.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what may have caused the collapse and will then issue recommendations on how to prevent it from happening again.

Miami-Dade Police are also conducting a homicide investigation.

Mallard represented Ajax Construction Corp. in 2013 when it was sued by Miami-Dade College following the collapse of a parking garage that killed four workers.

He said traffic would not be re-routed from under the bridge unless the firms believed the bridge, which had been sustaining itself for almost a week, was at risk of falling. Cracks in concrete structures, he added, is normal.

“At this stage, it’s highly unlikely that anybody can say with any degree of certainty what caused this collapse,” he said, adding that he expects other civil suits to be filed, whether on behalf of survivors, those who died in the collapse or by FIU itself.

The span was set into place during a six-hour process on March 10, just five days before the collapse, and the cracks in the concrete were spotted two days before the incident and discussed during a two-hour engineering meeting on the day of the collapse.

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The bridge was built using Accelerated Bridge Construction, a quick but expensive method of construction method that has grown in popularity in recent years. This type of construction minimizes traffic disturbances because crews can quickly swing slabs into place and resume work while traffic passes underneath. The bridge wasn’t scheduled to open until 2019.

But until it’s fully secured, quick-build structures are unstable and require the utmost precision as construction continues.

Denny Pate, the Engineer of Record employed by FIGG who first reported the cracking to the Florida Department of Transportation, said in a voicemail to FDOT that his team was not concerned with the cracking but that it was “not good” and would require repairs.

During Thursday’s meeting, Pate delivered a technical presentation regarding the cracking, and determined that it did not compromise the bridge’s structural integrity, per the complaint. This meeting was attended by representatives for FIU and FDOT.

The complaint goes on to allege that the stress testing conducted on Thursday afternoon caused the collapse, and that the dangers of performing such a test on a cracked bridge without a traffic mitigation plan or placing supports under the bridge were well known by the firms involved.

“The additional post-tensioning operations were performed five days after placing the span into its final position, and two days after noticing the first cracks in the structure,” the complaint states. “Instead of considering closure of traffic and performing emergency propping of the span, the Engineer of Record ordered the application of additional post-tensioning in the presence of traffic without props.”

Lawyers representing Hepburn will hold a 1 p.m. press conference in Orlando on Monday to further discuss the case.

Representatives from FIGG, MCM and BPA could not be immediately reached for comment Monday morning, but the companies have said they would cooperate fully in local and federal investigations into the incident.

Matt Morgan, one of the attorneys representing Hepburn, said in a statement to the Miami Herald that any kind of bridge construction, but particularly those built through ABC, require “close coordination” between all involved to ensure public safety.

“We are of the opinion that this tragedy was foreseeable and could have been prevented,” he said.

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