Miami-Dade County

Former Sweetwater cop sues FIU bridge builders, blaming collapse for her PTSD

Video shows moment FIU bridge collapsed on SW 8th St.

A pedestrian bridge under construction collapsed on March 15, 2018, just days after crews had dropped a 950-ton span in place on a project that was intended to give Florida International University students a safe route across the busy roadway.
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A pedestrian bridge under construction collapsed on March 15, 2018, just days after crews had dropped a 950-ton span in place on a project that was intended to give Florida International University students a safe route across the busy roadway.

Suffering emotional trauma from dealing with massive casualties or catastrophes isn’t unusual for cops, firefighters and other emergency workers. What isn’t common: Suing for pain and suffering for doing their jobs.

Jenna Mendez, a former Sweetwater officer who was among the first to respond to the horrific collapse of the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University, helping injured workers and crawling among crushed cars, has filed what South Florida experts say may rank as a first-of-its-kind civil lawsuit.

Her suit seeks compensation not from her employer but from the builders, engineers and architects who constructed the fatally flawed structure across Tamiami Trail, which snapped and crumpled to the ground, killing six people and injuring eight others.

“I’ve never heard of a first responder filing a lawsuit [like that] before,” said Coral Gables attorney Stuart Grossman, who represents the families of two victims in the March 2018 bridge collapse. “But by the same token, they’re people like everyone else,”

The lawsuit, originally filed in October in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, cleared a significant legal hurdle in April, when Judge Jennifer Bailey rejected motions from the major firms in the case to dismiss Mendez’s claims. Her case was consolidated with about a dozen other similar cases, but none from other first responders.

If successful, her case could potentially open the door to similar suits by first responders in the future. But it still has a long way to go and there is, experts say, an obvious line of defense: Dealing with death and disaster is just a part of the job for cops, firefighters and many emergency workers.

Mendez could not be reached for comment but her attorney, H. Clay Roberts, said the ripple effects from work in the aftermath of the bridge collapse were profound and ultimately cost her her law enforcement job. He said she continues to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Her claim is, as a consequence of being involved, she ended up suffering from PTSD and was put into treatment by the city,” Roberts said. “The city took her out of work and as a result terminated her employment.”

Her 228-page complaint seeks lost wages, medical expenses and damages and she has requested a jury trial.

In her Sweetwater police car, Mendez watched in horror as the bridge collapsed from a stoplight a couple of blocks away. She raced to the scene, siren blaring and lights flashing. In the frantic first minutes, she scaled the rubble to help struggling construction workers snagged by the collapse, before climbing down and crawling under the bridge to help those trapped in vehicles.

She was featured in several national publications as the heroic face of the department in the aftermath of the tragedy, with CNN, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald profiling her as one of the initial responders to reach the scene.

But dealing with the tragedy and its aftermath took a toll, according to the lawsuit. As a result, it says she’s suffered “debilitating, severe and permanent physical and emotional injuries when she arrived at the scene of the bridge collapse” and witnessed “the horrific scene of death, injury and destruction.” According to the lawsuit, “It was forseeable that the negligence of the defendants would lead to the need for first responders such as Jenna Mendez to attempt to rescue victims in imminent peril.”

Her suit targets more than two dozen entities, including bridge builder Munilla Construction Management, FIGG Bridge Engineers and engineering consultants the Louis Berger Group — the major firms involved with the design and construction of what the lawsuit calls the “crown jewel” of FIU’s City Prosperity Project, which would have connected the FIU campus to the city of Sweetwater with an overpass above Tamiami Trail and an adjacent canal.

The suit contends the firms didn’t give enough credence to cracks that appeared on the structure in the days leading up to its collapse. The lawsuit also claims that the cracks and a new speedier technique called Accelerated Bridge Construction, were the main contributors to the bridge’s failure.

Victims have filed at least 18 lawsuits against 25 defendants involved in the bridge project. All but one, the engineering consulting firm Louis Berger, are working on settlements. Those settlements are confidential, but will be added on top of the $42 million deal reached by the victims and the insurers of general contractor Munilla Construction Management.

Mendez parted ways with the city of Sweetwater just a few months before she filed her lawsuit. Sweetwater Police Chief Placido Diaz said Mendez was “administratively separated” from the department for an issue that did not involve misconduct and that he couldn’t go into more detail. He referred questions to Roberts, Mendez’s attorney.

Roberts said the city of Sweetwater placed his client on leave and eventually terminated her employment. He said she filed the lawsuit because of the emotional toll she suffered after dealing with the bridge collapse.

In addition to the civil suit against the firms, Mendez also has a claim filed with the city to collect Workers’ Compensation for loss of pay and medical needs. Last summer, the Florida Legislature made it easier for first responders to file such claims, passing a bill ordering municipalities to cover the costs of first responders who request it within 52 weeks of witnessing or taking part in a catastrophic event.

Mendez’s civil suit could complicate that claim. That’s because if Sweetwater were to pay Mendez’s lost pay and medical costs and she won or settled her lawsuit against the bridge builders, the city has the right to recoup the money it paid to her.

Workers’ Compensation is also one of the reasons lawsuits filed by police and firefighters against the perceived architects of a disaster are so rare.

“That’s the norm, the city is entitled to recover its out-of-pocket expenses,” said labor and employment attorney Teri Guttman Valdes. “But it’s [suing a third party] not common because Workman’s Comp has the reimbursement claim.”

Steadman Stahl, president of the Police Benevolent Association of Miami-Dade County, also said it’s the first he’s heard of a police officer suing an outside party for emotional suffering after a catastrophe.

“But when it comes to civil lawsuits,” Stahl said, “they’re as creative as you want to make them.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Nicholas Nehemas contributed to this report.