By Russ and Tiña De Maris
When the Skagit River Bridge near Burlington, Washington, collapsed in 2013, it blocked traffic in the state’s major north-south arterial, Interstate 5, where normally 71,000 vehicles per day crossed the Skagit River. A semi-truck carrying an oversized equipment load, riding in the right lane of the bridge, struck overhead sway braces, bringing down one of the bridge’s spans. Two other vehicles ended up in the water under the bridge; fortunately no one was killed.
In the aftermath, Washington state sued the truck driver and his employer and others, asking for $17 million in damages, based on negligence. The trucking company and others countersued, insisting that the state bore responsibility for the accident in a variety of ways, including its duty to maintain bridges and the fact that the bridge had been deemed “functionally obsolete,” meaning it was built according to standards that are no longer in practice today.
On October 31, the state’s Supreme Court tossed out the countersuit, pointing the finger directly at the truck driver who took out the sway braces. According to court records, William Scott was driving the oversize rig across the bridge, following a pilot car. As Scott entered the bridge, another big rig was to his left, occupying a lane that would have allowed Scott’s rig enough clearance to safely cross the bridge.
Scott’s pilot car driver was just a few seconds ahead of the truck, talking on a hands-free cellphone, and claims her height-clearance poles never indicated any danger; however, a witness says otherwise. The court found even if the pilot car driver had warned Scott of the low-clearance danger, it wouldn’t have mattered – the truck was so close behind the pilot car that there wouldn’t have been enough time to avoid hitting the braces.
In any event, Scott clobbered the 13 sway braces in the bridge’s first span, and apparently took no note of any problem. That is, until after he coasted his rig through to the other end of the bridge, then, checking his rear-view mirror, noticed that the first span was no longer there. The driver of the other truck, the one on Scott’s left, was never aware of any problem and simply continued on down the road. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of traffic behind the big trucks. It was months before traffic was anywhere close to “back to normal” across the Skagit River.
Says a statement from Washington state’s Department of Transportation: “Affirming the decision of two lower courts, the Supreme Court held WSDOT fulfilled all of its statutory obligations with respect to the bridge and is not responsible for paying any part of the more than $17 million it took to repair the bridge. Several of the defendants already have admitted their actions caused the bridge collapse. Nevertheless, they still have not paid any portion of the more than $17 million in repair costs they admit the state appropriately expended to repair the bridge.”