The collapse last year of the Florida International University pedestrian bridge cost the university more than just a piece of its reputation: it says it has suffered $15.2 million in damages.
And it was seeking in bankruptcy court to collect up to $5 million of that amount from an insurance policy held by its general contractor, Munilla Construction Management.
But Wednesday the university announced in court it would relinquish any claim to that money, as long as all $5 million went to the pool of funds set aside for the victims of the collapse – the six who died and more than a dozen others who claim injuries.
In a statement, FIU said it made the decision "out of respect for the victims of the bridge collapse and their families. We believe this is the right course of action, because it will allow (them) to maximize their recovery and expedite the process of getting compensation to them."
That means $42 million will now be available for the victims as part of MCM's liability for its role in the collapse.
MCM, now called Magnum Construction Management, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, seeking to reorganize. It reported assets of just under $100 million, but 243 claims have been filed in the bankruptcy case totaling more than $287 million – and that amount does not include many claims for which no amount has been specified.
Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis was appointed to review all 21 claims and decide who gets what from the $42 million pot, a confidential process set to begin Thursday.
Separate from the bankruptcy case, MCM and others businesses involved in the project are being sued in state court by 21 plaintiffs claiming wrongful death or personal injury. MCM is no longer actively defending itself in those cases, since federal bankruptcy court takes precedence.
So far, mediation in the state case has failed to produce any settlements, and the case is moving from a focus on settlement toward one on litigation, with defendants pointing the finger of blame at each other.
As part of Wednesday's agreement, FIU will no longer have to worry about defending itself. All plaintiffs agreed not to sue FIU or the Florida Department of Transportation.
And FIU can continue to seeks damages from other parties and in other ways, such as through a builder's risk policy and any bonds that were purchased to cover possible losses.
Among the costs FIU says it incurred: $2.8 million in additional costs to rebuild the bridge, $200,000 in demolition costs and $743,000 Miami-Dade County is seeking to recover from FIU for its response to the bridge collapse. Most of the remaining FIU damages involve money FIU already paid to MCM and other contractors for work on the bridge that collapsed under construction in March 2018.
One attorney who has been leading the plaintiffs' efforts in state court, Christos Lagos, praised FIU for relinquishing claims to the $5 million professional services liability policy held by MCM, saying, "On behalf of all of the victims, their family and loved ones, we sincerely thank FIU for their generosity and continuing concern for the victims of this tragedy."
Attorney Carlos Silva who represents the family of a man who died and one who suffered brain damage, was encouraged that at least some money will soon be available to those harmed.
"It's bittersweet. Just because you get some sort of compensation, maybe 10, 15 percent of what their claims are worth, doesn't mean it's a good day," he said, noting families are still left without loved ones wo happened to be travelling under the bridge when it collapsed.
Asked why he thinks FIU acted as it did, Silva said, "I think in a way they're trying to preserve their good name and I think this is being done also to help their image because I think they've been hurt a lot in this process."