The irony is that the Florida International University pedestrian bridge that collapsed last week was built with the intention that it would provide students a safer way to cross a canal and six lanes of traffic. It didn’t quite work out that way. As a result of the catastrophe, six people tragically lost their lives. Many investigations are currently underway to determine the cause of the collapse. Regardless of the cause, there will definitely be a number of civil suits filed, likely soon. The question that many are asking is, “How likely are criminal charges?”
Generally, we rarely see criminal charges brought after fatal industrial and construction accidents. The main reason for that is that manslaughter requires that the State prove, beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt, something called “culpable negligence.” That means prosecutors must have sufficient evidence that those responsible for the deaths acted with a “reckless disregard for human life” or had “a grossly careless disregard for the safety and welfare of the public.”
In trying to prove manslaughter in this case, prosecutors would have to believe a lot more than, “They were really negligent.” The design or construction of the bridge would have be so outside the norm of what similar professionals engage in. For example, prosecutors may have a case if it was found that instead of using steel in the construction of the bridge, they used substandard material like flimsy styrofoam or wood. Additionally, if it was found that the bridge builders intentionally ignored safety measures or purposely designed the bridge poorly, a criminal case may be warranted. It all depends on what investigators determine.
Investigators will focus on an alleged crack in the bridge that was known to one of the engineers before the deadly collapse. Hours before the collapse an FIGG engineer allegedly called a representative from the Florida Department of Transportation and left a message on his voicemail indicating the crack to the bridge that he observed posed “no safety risk.” Many are wondering why the road wasn’t closed after the potential defect in the bridge was observed. Additionally, some are asking why workers were up on the bridge when it was known there was a potential hazard and also, why didn’t they stop traffic when they conducted stress testing to the bridge?
While criminal charges aren’t often brought in fatal construction and industrial accident cases, there is some precedent for it. Miami-Dade prosecutors did bring felony murder charges against SabreTech after the 1996 ValuJet crash. The State alleged in that case that SabreTech, a company that was contracted, was negligent in the manner in which they handled oxygen generators that were placed inside the plane. That crash resulted in the death of over 100 people. Criminal charges were ultimately dropped after SabreTeech agreed to pay $500,000.
In the famous Eller Media case, Miami-Dade prosecutors charged an electrician with manslaughter after a 12-year-old boy was electrocuted at a bus stop. Prosecutors alleged that the electrician was grossly negligent in the wiring that caused the boy’s death. In that case, jurors acquitted the electrician and Eller Media, agreeing with the defense’s argument that lightening could have caused the death.
In Boston, in what was called the “Big Dig” case, prosecutors charged the company that built a tunnel that crushed a woman when it collapsed in 2008. Prosecutors argued that the company knew that the epoxy that it promoted and sold for the tunnel couldn’t handle the weight of the ceiling panels that ultimately fell.
Over the past ten years, no major criminal charges have been brought for any fatal construction accidents. Evan when four construction workers were killed as a result a Miami-Dade College parking garage collapse in 2012, prosecutors chose not to bring criminal charges. Prosecutors also didn’t levy any criminal charges after a crane accident killed two construction workers in 2008.
Let me make it clear that I am in no way faulting prosecutors for not bringing more criminal cases as a result of construction and industrial accident fatalities. I believe they would bring charges if the facts warranted them. The problem is that the burden of proof in criminal cases of this type is extremely high. Typically prosecutors find negligence but nothing more, as required.
While criminal charges are possible as a result of the FIU bridge collapse, I think it’s unlikely. Absent findings by investigators of some extremely egregious conduct that goes way above mere negligence, I think the only cases that will make it to court concerning this tragedy are civil lawsuits.
Thanks to Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle, whose article on this matter was of great assistance.