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Lessons on construction defects from the Miami bridge collapse

In this day and age, catastrophic structural collapses are rare in the developed world. Yet they do still happen, as last month's fatal bridge collapse in Miami so vividly illustrated. And structural defects in all kinds of construction occur on a much broader scale, costing property owners significant sums of money to remedy.

What lessons can be gleaned from the Miami bridge collapse? And how does it shed light on construction defects in general?

What happened

On March 16th, a pedestrian bridge under construction at Miami's Florida International University suddenly gave way. The entire 174-foot, 950-ton concrete span collapsed at once, crushing vehicles below and killing six people.

The bridge was constructed with an accelerated technique pioneered by Florida International University. The main span and footings were prefabricated and installed in a matter of hours a few days before the collapse.

What might have gone wrong

The bridge had an inventive concrete truss design that was specially developed for the project. It was supposed to be a durable structure that would last a century and endure category five hurricanes. So what went wrong?

With an investigation still underway, there are no answers yet. Several possibilities have emerged:

  • The design itself involved fewer supports than typical truss-style bridges. Additionally, it lacked "redundancies" - essentially, backup supports that would have prevented a catastrophic collapse in the event of one component's failure.
  • A change in project specifications late in the project required modifying the design. This redesign impacted critical joints and structural supports. According to one expert, design changes late in the game are more likely to result in errors. Such modifications often aren't vetted with the same degree of care as the initial design. What's more, the project was months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, leading to speculation that corners may have been cut to reduce delays and save money.
  • A few days before the bridge collapse, one of the project's engineers discovered cracks along the main span in the area that later gave way. The engineering team discussed the cracks and concluded they weren't a safety concern. While surface cracks in concrete can be merely cosmetic, they can sometimes indicate deeper structural weaknesses.
  • At the time of the collapse, workers were adjusting steel tension rods along the bridge span that fell. These adjustments could have overloaded the concrete.
  • The method of installing the concrete span - lifting it up in one piece - could have subjected it to undue stresses, leading to structural weaknesses that went unnoticed.

How structural defects happen

The Miami bridge collapse illustrates key issues that often arise in construction defect cases. Structural problems can contribute to cracked foundations, shifting walls, cracked stucco, balcony and deck collapses, and other costly failures.

These defects might arise from the design itself - for example, due to:

  • Engineering miscalculations
  • Inadequate testing or modeling
  • Lack of sufficient supports

Structural defects can also involve negligence on the part of the builder or contractor. For example, perhaps the builder took shortcuts during construction, substituting subpar materials or deviating from the project specs or building code requirements. Maybe they installed beams that were too narrow or used materials that were too weak. Perhaps poorly investigated subsurface conditions - like loose soil composition or inadequate drainage - also played a role.

Why experienced legal counsel is critical

As you can see, these cases are often as complex as the structures they involve. Just as multiple parties help bring a successful construction project to fruition, so, too, multiple parties may be at fault when something goes awry. It often takes a thorough and detailed investigation to pinpoint fault.

For this reason, if you have questions about any type of construction defects - design or otherwise - speak with a construction law attorney about your case. You may have a claim for compensation.

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