The North Carolina Department of Transportation is responsible for more than 18,000 bridges, pipes, and culverts that make up part of the state’s highway infrastructure. By their own admission, about 5,300 of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. “Structurally deficient” means deteriorated load-carrying components. “Functionally obsolete” indicates bridges that no longer meet the demands of the traffic they bear. While both terms can be applied to bridges still deemed safe, safety is a relative term that can change over time.
Many North Carolina bridges were built 30 to 50 years ago, if not longer. Three Wilmington, N.C. bridges – the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the Isabel Holmes Bridge, and the Thomas Rhodes Bridge – have all required structural maintenance as the years bring heavier vehicles, heavier traffic, and material wear to each.
Theoretically, bridges can collapse because their structures have been compromised over the years by use and outside elements to the point where weak design, stress points, hidden fractures, and/or foundation shifts create safety hazards. Repairs done often add to the weight of the bridges.
Realistically? Most collapses occur during the construction of new bridges. As bridge weight increases and traffic increases, any flaws in the deck, superstructure, and substructure can bring about collapse – and that can be catastrophic. Massive loss of property, personal injury, and even death commonly occur.
Take for example the 2015 Wake Tech bridge collapse. During construction of a 250-foot-long pedestrian bridge on the Wake Tech Northern Campus, the bridge suddenly gave way, sending five workers to the ground, one of whom died. The very next day, a second footbridge under construction collapsed. Both were found to have “design flaws” by the North Carolina Department of Labor.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation is the first line of responsibility for a bridge collapse – if they own that bridge. If a school or private company owns the bridge, then, obviously, they’d be the first line.
However, each engineering company or inspection service that worked on the bridge before its collapse is potentially liable for the damage. Litigation can be spread over a number of entities such as the original engineering company contracted to design the bridge, any company that later acquired that firm, any number of contractors the DOT retained over the years to perform engineering work, their subcontractors and material suppliers (particularly if material flaws were discovered to have contributed to the collapse), and any individual negligence that may have occurred.
Bridge collapses represent many millions of dollars in loss and liability. Because bridge construction and maintenance is highly collaborative, complex engineering, construction, and legal questions can shift blame. Investigations into the collapse by the state’s outside engineering experts, who often have exclusive access to the scene, may need to be challenged. In addition, in the unlikely event of an old bridge collapsing, records and who-did-what testimony may lack detail.
Bridge collapse compensation claims are never simple. Litigation can stretch out over years. Decisions as to filing a claim individually or as part of a group – and against whom – should never be attempted without professional legal guidance. Most state and engineering companies who may be liable would rather settle before protracted litigation becomes a courtroom issue, where damages awarded by a jury could escalate.
Rhine Law Firm, P.C. has won hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of our clients. Our experienced Wilmington construction litigation lawyers can offer sound legal counsel in navigating the often complex and adversarial challenges that stand between you and your fair compensation for injury, damage, or loss.
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