Newly constructed bridge collapsed near Florida International University/photo by pleasecat/Shutterstock.com Newly constructed bridge collapsed near Florida International University/photo by pleasecat/Shutterstock.com

Siding with arguments of transportation-safety officials, a federal judge blocked an attempt by the Miami Herald to get records related to a March bridge collapse at Florida International University that killed six people.

Senior U.S. District Judge William Stafford quashed a ruling by a state-court judge that would have required the Florida Department of Transportation to turn over records requested by the Herald. Stafford, who ruled in favor of the National Transportation Safety Board, also dismissed the case.

The NTSB went to federal court after Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll ruled in August that state public-records laws required the Florida transportation department to turn over bridge-related records from Feb. 20 to March 17. The pedestrian bridge collapsed March 15.

Federal officials objected to releasing the records during an investigation led by the NTSB. Stafford’s ruling focused, in part, on the interplay between state and federal courts and the NTSB’s arguments that the legal concept of “sovereign immunity” shielded it from the state lawsuit.

While the public-records case was filed against the Florida Department of Transportation, Stafford agreed with arguments that the NTSB was a “real party in interest” because releasing the records would interfere with the federal agency’s duties.

“Indeed, because the state court’s order effectively overrules a directive issued by the NTSB, disregards the NTSB’s interpretation of its own regulations, interferes with the NTSB’s administrative decisions regarding the release of investigative information, places FDOT [the Florida Department of Transportation] — as a designated party to the NTSB’s investigation — in the position of having to violate its legal obligation to comply with the NTSB’s regulations and directives, and has the potential to cause harm to the NTSB’s congressionally mandated investigation, the court agrees that the United States is a real party in interest here,” Stafford wrote in his 47-page decision.

As a party in interest, the NTSB could not be subject to the public-records lawsuit in state court because of sovereign immunity, Stafford wrote.

“Having determined that plaintiffs’ suit is one against the United States, whose sovereign immunity has not been waived, the court finds that the state court lacked jurisdiction to order the FDOT to produce documents that the NSTB, exercising its valid federal regulatory authority, directed FDOT not to produce,” Stafford wrote. “Because the state court lacked jurisdiction over the matter, this [federal] court likewise lacks derivative jurisdiction over the matter. The state court’s order is due to [be] quashed and the case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.”

The Herald filed the lawsuit in May after requesting a wide range of documents related to the bridge and the deadly collapse. The NTSB said the Florida transportation department could release records that existed through Feb. 19 but that it could not release later records because of the ongoing investigation.

“Normal NTSB procedure is to restrict release of investigative information until late in the investigation to ensure the integrity of the evidence received and to keep the parties focused on assisting the investigation,” Stafford wrote Friday.

Jim Saunders reports for the News Service of Florida.