The City of Pittsburgh and Three Engineering Firms Sued for Bridge Collapse

Lawsuits have been rolling in against the city of Pittsburgh in connection to the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. The most recent lawsuit, filed by a bus driver who was on the bridge at the time of the collapse, has also sued three engineering firms for failing to warn about the dangers of the bridge. The lawsuits have been a long time coming, with many victims of the collapse struggling to inspect the records necessary to build their case.

Collapsed bridge

ByAnjelica Cappellino, J.D.


Published on June 13, 2024

Collapsed bridge

What Happened?

On the morning of January 28, 2022, the 447-foot-long Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania collapsed 100 feet into a ravine. Six vehicles were on or near the bridge when it collapsed. But for snow that morning, which caused a two-hour school delay, the bridge would have likely been more populated at that time of day. Miraculously, no one died but four people were injured, two severely. At the time of the collapse, the bridge was about 50 years old and had been under its 26-ton weight limit. The bridge collapsed mere hours before President Biden arrived in Pittsburgh to promote spending on infrastructure.

The National Transportation Safety Board Investigation

The collapse was due to a structural failure but many of the details remained unknown until the National Transportation Safety Board released the findings of its investigation.

Federal investigators determined that the collapse began when “the transverse tie plate on the southwest bridge leg failed due to extensive corrosion and section loss caused by the continual accumulation of water and debris, which prevented a protective rust layer, called a patina, from forming.” Maintenance and repair recommendations were documented in many inspection reports, but the City of Pittsburgh failed to make the necessary changes, resulting in the deterioration of the transverse tie plate and subsequent structural failure of the bridge.

The investigators also determined that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation conducted inspections that were not in compliance with necessary requirements, by failing to identify fracture-critical areas on the bridge’s legs and failing to calculate load ratings accurately. Three main aspects of the load rating calculation were inaccurate – the holes and section loss on portions of the bridge legs, the effective length factor used to estimate the legs’ ability to resist buckling, and the amount of asphalt wearing surface on the bridge. If the load rate calculation had been done accurately, the result would have required the closure of the bridge. Overall, the NTSB found insufficient oversight at the city, state, and federal level. The NSTB issued eleven new recommendations to the city and other agencies to ensure that other bridges in Pittsburgh and nationwide are properly inspected.

“The Fern Hollow bridge catastrophe must serve as a wake-up call that we cannot take our infrastructure for granted,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “Only through diligent attention to inspection, maintenance, and repair can we ensure the roads, bridges, and tunnels we all traverse every day are safe for the traveling public. Lives depend on it.” ​

The Lawsuit Allegations

Daryl Luciani, a Pittsburgh Regional Transit bus driver, was halfway across the 64-foot-wide bridge when it began to collapse. The east end of the bridge collapsed first, followed by the west side. The 22-ton bus landed at an angle on concrete when it fell into the ravine 100 feet below. As he felt the bridge collapse beneath him, he feared that he and his passengers would die in the fall or an explosion from the natural gas line that ruptured during the collapse. Luciani and his passengers survived, but he suffered a rotator cuff tear in his left shoulder that required total replacement surgery. He also suffers from psychological injuries such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has been unable to return to his job.

This month, as the deadline for filings approached, Luciani filed suit against the city of Pittsburgh for their failure to maintain the bridge. The lawsuit also names three engineering firms – CDM Smith, the firm that performed bridge inspections from 2005 through 2019; Gannett Fleming, the firm that performed the inspections from 2020 through 2022; and Larson Design Group, the inspectors from 2020 through 2022. Luciani’s lawsuit alleges that the city and Larson Design Group were negligent for not properly vetting (and/or for ignoring the history of) CDM Smith and Gannett Fleming. CDM Smith had paid more than $40 million in lawsuit settlements in other states and Gannett Fleming was also investigated in the past for failures in design, engineering, and maintenance.

The lawsuit alleges that the city and firms all failed to properly inspect, upkeep, and maintain the bridge. It was the city’s responsibility to hire firms to perform basic evaluations and inspections, such as calculating load ratings, providing inspection reports, and recommending necessary maintenance. Although the work was contracted out to the firms, the city “remained ultimately responsible for the safety and maintenance of the bridge and the accuracy of the bridge inspection reports.”

As the complaint explains, the Fern Hollow Bridge was a “K-frame” style structure, with its main supporting resembling the letter connected by an X-shaped cross-bracing, a design that is disfavored. The design relies on the quality of the frame elements, without any back-up support, so its means of dispersing stress placed on the bridge is limited. This type of design required traffic restrictions, more stringent guidelines, and more extensive inspections. It was known or should have been known as early as 2005, that water damage had caused severe corrosion to the bridge’s cross-bracing and supports.

Despite the corrosion-eating holds in the bridge as wide as 12 inches, the engineering firms failed to flag the problems or close the bridge. Luciani and his wife, who are represented by Peter D. Giglione and Devyn R. Lisi of Massa Butler Giglione and Steven M. Barth of Barth Rovnan LLC, are not the only victims who have filed lawsuits.

Other plaintiffs include bus passengers Anna Nichols and Matthew Evans, as well as several others driving across the bridge when it collapsed -- Clinton and Irene Runco, Velva and Tyrone Perry, Thomas and Sara Bench, and Joseph Engelmeier.

The city of Pittsburgh, represented by Kevin T. Freyder and John F. Doherty of the City of Pittsburgh Department of Law, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

About the author

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Anjelica Cappellino, Esq., a New York Law School alumna and psychology graduate from St. John’s University, is an accomplished attorney at Meringolo & Associates, P.C. She specializes in federal criminal defense and civil litigation, with significant experience in high-profile cases across New York’s Southern and Eastern Districts. Her notable work includes involvement in complex cases such as United States v. Joseph Merlino, related to racketeering, and U.S. v. Jimmy Cournoyer, concerning drug trafficking and criminal enterprise.

Ms. Cappellino has effectively represented clients in sentencing preparations, often achieving reduced sentences. She has also actively participated in federal civil litigation, showcasing her diverse legal skill set. Her co-authored article in the Albany Law Review on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines underscores her deep understanding of federal sentencing and its legal nuances. Cappellino's expertise in both trial and litigation marks her as a proficient attorney in federal criminal and civil law.

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