Recovery operations continue at the site of the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge
The collapse of the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University will spawn years of lawsuits in civil court as families try to hold companies and government agencies accountable for the devastation.
But whether anyone goes to jail remains a long shot.
Miami-Dade police and prosecutors have started an investigation into the accident that killed at least six people, but building a criminal prosecution for the deaths remains a daunting prospect, according to legal experts.
Fatalities in construction and industrial accidents rarely result in manslaughter prosecutions because, under Florida law, it is difficult to prove people involved in the projects acted with a “reckless disregard for human life” or had “a grossly careless disregard for the safety and welfare of the public.”
“The conduct almost has to be intentional,” said South Florida defense lawyer Roy Black.
“The construction or design or safety practices would have to deviate from the professional norm so much that it becomes criminal. For example, if instead of steel, you used wood. Or you cut the price in half, and lied to people while doing it. Any type of dishonesty or deception.”
The under-construction pedestrian bridge collapsed Thursday afternoon onto Southwest Eighth Street, just days after the main span was erected over the busy thoroughfare next to campus. The 950-ton concrete structure was being tested for stability when it suddenly collapsed, flattening a row of cars underneath, killing at least six motorists and sparking a frantic rescue effort.
The bridge, while funded primarily through a federal grant and elevated over a state road, was overseen by FIU and undertaken by Miami’s MCM and Tallahassee’s Figg Bridge Group. The companies used an accelerated bridge construction technique to erect the walkway over the roadway, using a “self-propelled modular transporter” to move a pre-constructed 175-foot-long concrete slab into place.
As investigators worked to find the final bodies trapped in vehicles under the rubble Friday night, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began probes to determine what caused the catastrophe — a crucial ruling needed before any criminal charges can be considered.
Among the factors the probes will consider: Was substandard material used on the concrete span? Were there crucial design flaws in the “instant bridge” designed to minimize disruption to traffic? Were safety measures ignored that might have prevented harm to the the public?
Investigators will likely focus on who knew what, and when. Early Saturday, FIU acknowledged that hours before the collapse, officials held a meeting to discuss whether a crack that had appeared in the bridge was a safety risk. The meeting included a representative from the Florida Department of Transportation, and a FIGG engineer pronounced there “was no safety risk,” according to the school.
“There are so many questions that I have, just from my construction knowledge,” said Miami civil lawyer Alan Goldfarb, who has handled many high-profile accidents. “Why would you not close the road to traffic? Why would you have workers up there? Why would you not do the stress testing at 2 a.m., when there is no traffic?”
But whether any of that amounts to criminal negligence in Miami-Dade County will be up to prosecutors.
That Mami-Dade homicide detectives were called to the scene is not unusual. The bureau is tasked with examining unnatural deaths, including suicides, fatal plane crashes and industrial accidents. Working with them now are three senior Miami-Dade prosecutors, Laura Adams, Frank Ledee and John Perikles, who toured the scene early Friday.
“The investigation is going to be complex, detailed and challenging,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told the Miami Herald. “It’s all going to come down to science and the experts.”
Homicide detectives will be interviewing witness, “including members of the design team, construction team, fabricators, and government agency personnel involved in oversight,” according to prosecutors. The State Attorney’s Office will also review permitting and the safety inspection process, as well as the histories of the companies involved.
Prosecutors said they could also hire their own independent experts, once the NTSB investigation is complete.
Fernandez Rundle drew scrutiny after telling TV reporters that “charges are probably the most improbable at this point.” She defended herself Saturday, saying she was speaking in general about “the complexity of these cases.”
“Our office is clearly going to wait until all these investigative agencies put the evidence together and we are going to follow the evidence,” she said Saturday. “If criminal charge are warranted, they will be filed.”
Mass-casualty accidents do sometimes result in criminal cases.
Miami-Dade prosecutors charged an aviation company with third-degree felony murder and manslaughter for the 1996 accidental crash of ValuJet 592. The state accused SabreTech, a contracted company, of negligently handling oxygen generators that were placed inside the plane, causing the crash that killed more than 100 people.
The charges were dropped as part of a plea deal when the defunct SabreTech agreed to pay $500,000.
“With ValuJet, we didn’t go there looking to prove a crime. But the interviews and the evidence took us in that direction,” said retired Miami-Dade homicide detective John Butchko. He added: “One of the challenges with companies is records. Records can disappear with unsavory companies. Things can be altered. The cooperation of the employees is important. That’s the biggest challenge with a private company trying to hide their mistakes.”
The companies in the FIU bridge case have pledged their cooperation in the investigation.
In the past decade, however, no major fatal construction accident has resulted in a criminal prosecution, including the case of four construction workers killed in a Miami Dade College parking garage collapse in 2012, a fatal crane accident near Downtown Miami that killed two construction workers in 2008 and the concrete-pouring failure that left three workers dead at a Bal Harbour condo project in 2006.
With so many people involved in large construction projects — engineers, construction firms, safety inspectors, suppliers, subcontractors, government officials, just to name a few — narrowing down just who is to blame for a jury is tough, said Penny Brill, the former head of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s legal bureau.
“Detectives and prosecutors are going to have to become experts in construction,” Brill said. “They are going to have to understand and decide whether it’s enough to give to a jury to decide.”
In the infamous “Big Dig” case in Boston, state prosecutors in 2008 charged a company called Power Fasteners with manslaughter for a tunnel collapse that killed a woman under an avalanche of concrete. Investigators discovered that the company knew that the epoxy it marketed and sold for the project couldn’t handle the weight of the ceiling panels that fell.
Prosecutors in Massachusetts eventually dropped the manslaughter charge in exchange for the company paying $16 million to the city and state, as well as halting sales of the product. Also arrested for fraud: four managers of a company that sold inferior concrete to the Big Dig project. They were convicted but not sentenced to jail time.
In Miami-Dade, the most recent case involved Jose Navarro, who was helping a friend dig a backyard pond with the assistance of a backhoe. Prosecutors charged him with manslaughter, saying Navarro fatally struck his friend with the backhoe’s bucket, not during the work — but during what was in essence an impromptu water fight.
“The state’s position is that anyone who plays with a machine is reckless,” said the former prosecutor on the case, Erika Isidron.
But jurors last year decided on a lesser charge of misdemeanor culpable negligence — and Navarro got 60 days in jail.
Perhaps the most infamous case was that of outdoor sign company Eller Media, which along with an electrician was charged with manslaughter in the electrocution of a 12-year-old boy at one of its bus shelters.
Miami prosecutors said that jury-rigged electrical wiring was gross negligence and led to the boy’s death. Defense attorneys argued that a lightning strike could have killed Jorge Cabrera Jr. Jurors agreed with the defense and acquitted Eller and the electrician.
“It just shows you how difficult it is to prove manslaughter in these types of cases,” said Brill, one of the prosecutors on the case.