On the evening of May 23, a large section of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mt. Vernon, Washington collapsed into the river below. See news articles here and here. According to early reports, an “oversized” truck struck one of the overhead steel trusses on the bridge, which caused the entire structure to fail. Amazingly, only three people sustained minor injuries in the collapse. However, the enormous cost of repairing the bridge and the road could raise several complex liability and insurance issues.
The first issue is the allocation of fault. If the truck that struck the steel beam was indeed “oversized,” does it bear some fault for the collapse? If so, commercial auto policies might be in play.
To the extent that the bridge was negligently constructed, it was likely built by multiple contractors and subcontractors (and designed by engineers, etc.). If so, it is crucial to determine which part of the bridge was negligently constructed. Was it the steel beam itself? Was it some other part of the bridge to which the beam was connected, or a defective weld or bolt? Was the overall design flawed?
Assuming some negligent construction – and assuming the negligent parties were insured – the next issue is trigger of coverage. Certainly, the (rather limited ) bodily injury in this case occurred on May 23, so only occurrence-based policies issued at that time would be triggered for those injuries. And on the surface, according to early news reports, the “property damage” appears to have occurred when the “oversized” truck struck the steel beam. If liability lies solely with the contractors that built the bridge in 1955, and they have since gone out of business and stopped buying insurance, then there may be no insurance issues here at all.
But what if the beam or some other part had already been slowly cracking or failing over a long period of time? Would this constitute “property damage” under Washington law? If so, would it trigger policies issued since as early as 1955, when the bridge was built? Insurance policies issued that long ago could be lost, which raises its own host of issues. And if only a few older insurance policies are triggered – even if they are ascertainable – they may have very small limits. It could also be difficult to unravel “additional insured” status and contractual indemnity obligations among different contractors involved in the project so long after the bridge was built.
Then there is the much-contested issue of coverage for the replacement of the insured’s work product. If one portion of the bridge, built by one subcontractor, was defective, is the cost of repairing or replacing that defective element covered by that subcontractor’s general liability policy? What about damage to other portions of the bridge or roadway? What if the general contractor on the entire bridge is determined to be responsible (or is the only liable party with insurance)?
Finally, there could be complex allocation issues between the various triggered insurance policies. No doubt some or all of these interesting issues will surface in the inevitable litigation to follow.