I-5 Bridge Collapse

People look on after the Interstate 5 bridge collapsed over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon in May 2013.

Trucking companies involved in the 2013 I-5 Skagit River bridge collapse are on the hook to pay for the damage, while taxpayers are not, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court majority, in a 5-4 split, found that a succession of state laws governing load sizes since 1937 were intended to protect the state, when oversize vehicles collide with highway structures. Justice Steven Gonzalez quoted passages saying "no liability shall attach" to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The 1965 version specifies the state isn't liable when loads exceed 14 feet in height.

Washington state sued Mullen Trucking and Motorways Trucking for $17 million, to replace a freeway span that fell after being hit by a Mullen truck, while three other spans stayed in place. The Federal Highway Administration supplied an emergency grant for the work, but required the state to seek reimbursement.

The trucking firms countersued, and argued the state should pay some share. WSDOT was negligent, their attorney said, because it operated a bridge rated "functionally obsolete" as well as fracture-critical, meaning just one broken beam could release forces to destroy the entire truss. Clearances varied from 14 feet, 5 inches, on the edges to 17 feet, 3 inches, in the center. Mullen Trucking obtained a permit, and only the left lane was safe to drive.

Mullen's pilot-car driver didn't notice the low clearance while its southbound truck driver, hauling a 15-foot, 11-inch high load, was boxed into the right lane by a passing Motorways truck, video evidence showed. His cargo, a steel drill casing, smacked 11 overhead braces, which tugged and bent the main bridge beams, investigators with the Washington State Patrol and National Transportation Safety Board found.

A car and a pickup nose-dived into the river during the collapse. The three people in them escaped serious injury, but a state trooper died in a crash a week later, while on a motorcycle in the detour zone.

Following the crash, WSDOT sawed away and replaced the overhead sway braces to allow 18 feet of clearance. Yellow clearance signs were added along I-5, as far south as Seattle.

In the dissent, Justice Charles Wiggins cited a broader 1986 tort-reform law that allocates fault to all parties by percentages, as determined by a jury or local judge. Wiggins wrote that the majority's narrow view "abrogates the State's common-law duty to maintain the reasonable safety of its roads and bridges."

Images of the I-5 Skagit Bridge collapse are misleadingly featured this fall in campaign ads by opponents of Tim Eyman's Initiative 976, a ballot measure that seeks to slash car-tab fees to $30. The bridge isn't identified in legislative budgets to require major retrofits, and car-tab proceeds are earmarked predominantly to other kinds of projects.

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