Lawsuit seeks to determine fault in 2013 Skagit River bridge collapse

The collapsed bridge where I-5 crosses the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, Washington, on May 23, 2013.
The collapsed bridge where I-5 crosses the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, Washington, on May 23, 2013. Seattle Times

Nearly three years after a portion of the Skagit River Bridge on Interstate 5 collapsed into the river, a legal dispute continues over who will be held financially liable.

In December, a Skagit County Superior Court judge combined into one lawsuit two civil claims brought against the company that operated the semi-truck that struck several overhead trusses on May 23, 2013, on what is now named the Trooper Sean M. O’Connell Jr. Memorial Bridge.

The state Attorney General’s office contends the bridge strike caused the bridge’s northern span to crash into the river.

The company denies responsibility and has filed a counterclaim.

The single suit now includes filings from 12 parties, including the truck’s driver, a pilot vehicle operator and the three people who fell into the river as they were traveling over the bridge during the collapse. A trial date has not been set.

Though the bridge has long since been repaired and once again has about 70,000 cars a day cross over it, the legal aftermath of the collapse could continue throughout 2016, and possibly longer.

No one died in the 2013 collapse, but the severing of a major regional transportation route disrupted travel and business for months.

Though the bridge has long since been repaired and once again has about 70,000 cars a day cross over it, the legal aftermath of the collapse could continue throughout 2016, and possibly longer.

Since the incident, separate investigations have implicated both the actions of the truck driver and problems with oversight in Washington’s transportation system as contributing to the collapse.

The State Patrol’s Major Accident Investigation Team attributed the collapse to the actions of the truck driver, William D. Scott, who it found was not fully aware of his load height or the clearance height of the bridge.

On the day of the bridge’s collapse, Scott was transporting an oversize metal shed southbound on I-5 to a fabrication yard in Vancouver, Washington.

Scott reportedly told State Patrol investigators that the pilot car driver, Tammy Detray, did not alert him to any clearance issues on the bridge just prior to the collision, according to an infraction report.

He also said as he approached the bridge while in the southbound right lane of I-5 another semi-truck was overtaking him at a fast speed and was “squeezing him” on his left side, according to the report.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which released its final report on the collapse in July 2014, cited a distracted pilot car driver as an element in the truck’s collision with bridge.

But the board also cited as significant factors insufficient planning standards from Washington transportation officials and the state’s practice of automatically issuing oversize-load permits to freight haulers via the Internet without in-person reviews.

The state Attorney General’s office filed a claim in February 2015 on behalf of the state Department of Transportation — which owns the O’Connell Memorial Bridge — seeking damages for the cost of the clean-up, traffic control, emergency response, construction of a temporary replacement span and later a permanent replacement.

The suit names several responsible parties, including Scott and the trucking company, Mullen Trucking LP of Alberta, Detray and Saxon Energy Services Inc. of Alberta, the owner of the load being moved.

The state’s court filings do not mention a specific amount of money it seeks to be awarded.

The total cost of the bridge collapse, including the temporary and permanent bridge spans, was about $19.8 million, according to the transportation department. Of that amount, the state has been reimbursed about $18.7 million by the federal government.

The state’s complaint against Mullen Trucking contends the truck driven by Scott exceeded the legal height limit set by Washington law and was 2 inches taller than the height listed on a permit obtained by Scott to transport the load.

The complaint also alleges that while Detray’s Dodge pickup truck, used as a pilot vehicle, was equipped with a clearance pole meant to indicate to Detray if the oversize load would not clear certain spaces, Detray did not inform Scott that the pole reportedly struck the bridge.

The state’s complaint further states Scott was following Detray too closely to have been able to stop in time even if Detray had warned him of the clearance issue.

The maintenance of the bridge was abysmal.

Steve Block, a lawyer representing Mullen Trucking

Mullen Trucking has denied responsibility, and in April 2015 filed a counterclaim against the state.

Steve Block, a lawyer representing Mullen Trucking and Scott, said the company contends its truck made minimal contact with the bridge and that the true cause of the collapse was the state’s failure to adequately inspect, repair and maintain the bridge over the course of its nearly 60-year life.

Had Washington transportation officials ensured the bridge was properly maintained, the bridge would have been able to sustain the damage without failing, the company argues in court filings.

“The maintenance of the bridge was abysmal,” Block said.

Mullen’s court filings also contend Detray was at fault for causing the collision. That is something Detray, who was hired as a contractor by the trucking company, denied in a separate response to the state’s lawsuit.

(The bridge) was structurally sound and reasonably safe for ordinary travel.

Washington state officials, in court filings

The company seeks to be awarded money by the court to cover damages to its truck and cargo.The Attorney General’s office could not be reached for comment on the case. In its filings, the state denies the contact between the truck and the bridge was minimal, contending the company’s truck “violently struck the bridge with such a significant force that it destroyed a section of the bridge.”

The state also argues that at all times leading up to the bridge’s collapse, the bridge “was structurally sound and reasonably safe for ordinary travel,” according to court filings.

Joining the state as plaintiffs in the case are the three people who fell into the river. Dan and Sally Sligh of Oak Harbor and Bryce Kenning of Mount Vernon seek damages for physical and emotional pain and suffering.

The Slighs were crossing the bridge while traveling southbound on I-5 in a Dodge Ram pickup pulling a travel-trailer when the bridge collapsed. Kenning was driving northbound across the bridge in a Subaru Crosstrek.

Though no one died the bridge collapse, as was the case in 2007 when the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis killed 13 people, the collapse was not without tragedy.

After a permanent replacement span was installed, the bridge was renamed in honor of a State Patrol trooper from Marysville who was killed about a week after the collapse while working to direct detoured traffic near Conway.