Kelley Uustal Trial Attorney
March 15, 2018

3 Things Floridians Want to Know About the Miami FIU Bridge Collapse

Thursday’s tragic Florida International University (FIU) pedestrian bridge collapse left at least four people dead and 10 injured after the 174-foot structure gave way, crushing at least eight cars as it caved in on six lanes of South Florida traffic.

FIU originally ordered the $14.2 million bridge to offer FIU students a safe passage over SW 8th Street. To speed up the process and minimize traffic interruptions, FIU implemented an accelerated bridge construction method and novel concrete materials, building the massive Miami walkway off-site, then lifting the complete 950-ton structure into place.

The FIU bridge held up for six days.

Still reeling from the reality of this disaster, Fort Lauderdale lawyers and concerned South Florida citizens have some serious questions. Especially knowing that primary contractors, Figg Bridge Group and Munilla Construction Management, have a frightening record of violations and collapsed bridges under their belts.

How did Figg and Munilla win FIU project contracts in the first place? Did they use quality materials? Follow safety procedures?

Here are 3 questions people should be asking about the Miami bridge collapse.

#1: How Did Contractors Munilla and Figg Win FIU Contracts?

Many South Florida residents were angered to hear that the two main contractors hired for the FIU bridge project have been sued for previous bridge failures and unsafe practices allegations.

Ten days ago, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport TSA employee, Jose Perez, sued South Florida’s Munilla Construction Management for multiple bone fractures he sustained after a temporary bridge constructed by Munilla collapsed in October 2016. Perez’ lawsuit argues Munilla did substandard work and used “incompetent, inexperienced, unskilled or careless employees.”

In June 2012, four workers assembling Virginia’s South Norfolk Jordan Bridge for the Tallahassee-based Figg Bridge Group fell 40 feet after a 90-ton slab of concrete failed. Luckily, the workers only suffered minor injuries. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry fined Figg $28,000 for making unapproved girder modifications, neglecting regular girder inspections and slacking on equipment training.

So how did Munilla win the bid for the $14.2 million U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) FIU walkway project, beating out three other contractors? And why was Figg approved to partner with Munilla? Does it take fatalities to lose a bid?

Some question the US DOT Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, which awarded FIU $11.4 million for its pedestrian bridge project. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed concerns that US DOT staff granted TIGER awards (including the 2013 FIU bridge project award) in violation of US DOT requirements.

In granting TIGER awards, US DOT personnel rate each project based on criteria including safety, economics, environmental sustainability and state of good repair. GAO criticized US DOT for granting TIGER awards to projects with low technical ratings, in 19 instances changing the technical ratings of projects from “acceptable” to “highly recommended” without offering any reason for the change.

Florida citizens depend on evaluators and award programs to fund only the safest, highest quality, economically sound projects. Organizations that fund construction projects based on politics over quality pose a serious threat to public safety.

#2: Did FIU Bridge Contractors Follow Safety Practices?

As we said earlier, FIU employed an accelerated bridge construction method to save time and ease traffic delays. But companies have a duty to place public safety as top priority – much higher priority than speed.

It only took workers six hours to raise the bridge over Tamiami Trail Saturday, the first time an accelerated bridge construction method was used on a bridge of this size.

“It is my understanding that this bridge was constructed using the new Accelerated Bridge Construction method, and was installed this past Saturday in only six hours,” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said. “While I support federal dollars being used to support innovative technologies, these projects must meet the highest standards to ensure safety is paramount.”

FIU President Mark Rosenberg said workers had conducted a stress test on the bridge Thursday morning.

“I have not spoken directly to Munilla Construction, but I am satisfied that the testing that was occurring was consistent with best practices,” Rosenberg said. “I know that tests occurred today. And I know, I believe, that they did not prove to lead anyone to the conclusion that we would have this kind of a result. But I do not know that as a fact.”

Later Thursday night, Senator Rubio tweeted that engineers were tightening the cables when the bridge collapsed.

Forensic engineers will have to investigate the design of the bridge, the accelerated bridge construction method, the quality of materials used, and whether workers met all requirements for daily bridge inspections and safety practices.

While it will take investigators months to figure out what happened, we already know the most important thing – the FIU bridge collapse was avoidable. The deaths and injuries were preventable. And if any one involved violated important safety regulations, substituted low-quality materials, or otherwise took intentional shortcuts, they must be held accountable.

#3: Did Weak Materials Cause the FIU Bridge Failure?

To enhance public safety, government-funded projects must adhere to strict standards regarding the quality of materials they use. Yet many corrupt companies will try to cut corners and substitute cheaper materials to save money. In bridge building, replacing US steel with cheap, foreign steel is a favorite. And incredibly dangerous.

Buy American laws require that government-funded construction projects use high-quality, US steel. This is because American steelmakers follow strict guidelines in steel manufacturing, ensuring solid steel composition free of particulates that can weaken the load bearing material – not so in China.

Poor quality Chinese steel is about 50% cheaper than US steel. Dishonest US contractors will purchase Chinese steel and relabel it as American-made steel to save money. As a result, structures fail and people die.

Investigators will be able to analyze the steel used in the FIU bridge to determine its quality and origin. Until then, Congress continues to enforce US steel requirements. Just last week, US administration announced across-the-board tariffs on steel imports in an effort to enhance both the domestic steel industry and public safety.

Depending on what forensic engineers discover in the coming months, various parties could be at fault for the Miami accident, including contractors Munilla and Figg, US DOT TIGER award staff, FIU bridge engineers, construction workers and others involved in the project.

Florida International University itself was responsible for permit and plan approvals and bridge inspections. In addition, the Florida Department of Transportation pointed out that, while regulations required FIU to use a state-approved engineering firm for an independent design evaluation, it instead used the non-approved international firm, Louis Berger.

We can only hope that officials discover what caused the FIU bridge collapse and make prompt and necessary policy adjustments so that future lives can be saved.

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