The first two lawsuits stemming from the collapse of a pedestrian bridge near Florida International University were announced Monday, with plaintiffs attorneys estimating damages of up to $1 billion for all of those hurt or killed.
Morgan & Morgan represents Marquise Rashaad Hepburn, who was riding his bicycle under the bridge when it collapsed, according to a lawsuit that was filed Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. He was hit by a car and sent flying, causing serious injuries. He has been released from the hospital.
The family of Alberto Arias, who died after the van he was in was crushed by the bridge, said they retained attorney Yesenia Collazo of the Collazo Law Firm in Miami. They plan to file litigation soon and will announce details Tuesday.
Thursday’s collapse of the concrete bridge over Southwest Eighth Street killed six people and injured at least nine more. The $14 million project, spearheaded by Munilla Construction Management LLC and FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc., was installed just days before. It may take years of litigation to untangle difficult questions about liability for the collapse.
Hepburn’s lead attorney is Matt Morgan, son of firm founder John Morgan. Matt Morgan works from the Orlando office and has won several multimillion-dollar personal injury verdicts, including a $47.5 million award for a motorcyclist injured in a head-on collision.
The Morgan & Morgan team also includes Keith Mitnik and former Orange Circuit Judge Belvin Perry, who oversaw the Casey Anthony murder trial.
The attorneys said they are investigating reports that an engineer left a voicemail with the Florida Department of Transportation describing cracks in the bridge two days before the collapse. FIU said it met with engineers and FDOT hours before the bridge failure to discuss the cracks.
According to Sen. Marco Rubio, the bridge’s suspension cables were being tightened when the bridge collapsed.
“If there’s a crack in the bridge and there’s post-tensioning work going on, why is the motoring public still being able to travel under this bridge?” Morgan asked during a press conference Monday.
He estimated the total claims of all the victims would be valued at $500 million to $1 billion, likely including punitive damages.
“It’s a significant loss with significant consequences,” he said.
Perry said it was important for the firm to file litigation quickly to get spoliation of evidence letters out to every possible company involved in the bridge collapse.
“By doing what we’re doing — getting involved early on and seeking the answers to the questions … — you make sure that evidence does not disappear,” he said.
The litigation could also set the stage for criminal charges, although it’s too early to be sure, Perry said. He noted a Seattle contractor was recently charged with a felony for the death of an employee in a sewer trench collapse based on facts established by an earlier civil case.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told CBS Miami criminal charges were “improbable.”
Defendants in the lawsuit include MCM, FIGG and other companies with consulting roles in the project. One notable defendant is missing for now: FIU. Because it is a public university, the school is protected from litigation until it has completed its own investigation and formally denied liability, Morgan said.
MCM did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company offered “thoughts and prayers” to those hurt in the collapse in a statement on its outgoing voicemail.
“We are all devastated and are doing everything we can to assist,” the message said. “We will conduct a full investigation and cooperate in every way.”
A FIGG representative said Monday morning that the company had not yet been served with the lawsuit, and could not comment. In a statement on its website, FIGG said it was “stunned” by the collapse.
“Our deepest sympathies are with all those affected by this accident,” the statement said. “We will fully cooperate with every appropriate authority in reviewing what happened and why. In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before. Our entire team mourns the loss of life and injuries associated with this devastating tragedy, and our prayers go out to all involved.”