OLYMPIA, WA–Trucking companies, not taxpayers, will be on the hook for a 2013 incident that led to the collapse of a section of I-5 bridge in Mount Vernon, according to a split decision by the Washington State Supreme Court Wednesday.
In the 5-4 decision, Justice Steve Gonzalez ruled today that Mullen Trucking 2005 Ltd., a Canadian corporation, is liable for the incident that involved a truck carrying an oversized load that struck the overhead support beams of the bridge leading to the collapse into the Skagit River.
No one was killed in the collapse but the incident left three people with minor injuries. The bridge is an important transportation link between Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle with an average 71,000 vehicles crossing each day.
An analysis published by engineers in The Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities found that the bridge repair costs exceeded $15 million and that figure “doesn’t account for economic losses that the area felt because they and visitors no longer had access to the interstate.”
On May 23, 2013, William Scott, a driver for Mullen Trucking 2005 Ltd., was transporting a 15-foot 11-inch oversize load on I-5 from Canada to Vancouver, Washington, which required crossing the Skagit River Bridge in Mount Vernon. The bridge varied in vertical clearance from 17 feet 3 inches in the center to 14 feet 5 inches at the edge.
Court documents allege that Mullen Trucking had obtained a permit from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for a 15-foot 9-inch load.
However, following the accident, the Washington State Patrol measured the load at 15 feet 11 inches, two inches above permit allowance. Further, the permit obtained from WSDOT contained a written warning, stating “ROUTE DOES NOT GUARANTEE HEIGHT CLEARANCES.”
Scott’s truck also had a pilot vehicle—a 1997 Dodge Ram pickup truck driven by Tammy Detray—traveling in front of him with a 16-foot, 2-inch tall clearance pole. As the clearance vehicle crossed the bridge in the right lane, at least one witness said the clearance pole hit the bridge three or four times. Detray, however, said in a written statement that she did not strike the bridge with the pole but that she was distracted because she was talking to her husband on a handsfree cellphone device.
Investigators determined that Detray was only 4.12 seconds and between 332 and 363 feet ahead of Scott, according to court documents, and even if Detray had alerted Scott to a clearance issue, Scott was too close to alter his path.
About a half mile before Scott entered the bridge, he noticed an approaching truck which was owned by codefendant Motorways Transport Ltd. and driven by Amandeep Sidhu, preventing Scott from switching lanes.
As they entered the bridge, Scott’s oversize load struck the lower right portion of the bridge. Next, there was a giant bang, and “everything got violent,” he said, adding objects were thrown through the air and everything shook. As he looked back, he realized the bridge was in the water.
An investigation team determined the proximate cause of the collision was directly attributable to Scott’s negligence and the state sued Mullen Trucking and Motorways Transport for negligence.
The trucking companies countersued, claiming the State was partially at fault and negligent in issuing a permit for the load and maintaining the bridge, court documents said.
Justice Gonzalez cited the state’s 1986 Comparative Fault statute that states “no liability may attach” to the state Department of Transportation as well as the 1937 Motor Vehicle Act, which imposes broad liability to those who cause damage to bridges and elevated structures while driving.
Dissenting justices argued that the state could still be found liable if they had failed to properly maintain the bridge.
According to court documents, the bridge had been deemed “functionally obsolete” and a “Fracture Critical Bridge,” and had been struck nine times before it collapsed.