A Miami-Dade circuit judge wants to know how 26 threaded steel rods – similar, if not identical, to those installed in the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge – were melted down after being removed from the work site by one of the companies being sued over its role in the project.
"It's distressing," said Judge Jennifer Bailey, after being told in a court hearing Wednesday that the melted down rods were the only unused ones left behind on the job site. "I'm dismayed, as I'm sure everyone in this room is dismayed, at this turn of events -- given the time and effort and detail that was put into the order regarding the disposition of the material from the bridge collapse."
The rods and a bolt found with it were identified for preservation by another defendant in the cases, according to an evidence custody form filed in court pleadings.
But an attorney for Structural Group said a company employee removed and destroyed the rods in July after consulting with the general contractor MCM's site supervisor and determined only the bolt lying atop the rods was tagged for preservation. A photograph shows only the bolt had a yellow tag attached to it.
Bailey gave lawyers until next Friday to produce affidavits from people who witnessed the events leading to the destruction of the potential evidence.
"I just want to know what happened and who was on the scene and who were the decision makers and how did this happen," the judge said. "That's really the question I have."
Once those sworn statements are reviewed, parties can argue whether they believe depositions or other testimony is necessary to show whether the destruction was a violation of the court's order on preservation of evidence.
Structural Group, among other tasks, used steel rods for post-tensioning in the bridge.
If it's found a party intentionally destroyed what it should have known could be key evidence, and that such actions prejudiced other parties in the case, the judge could instruct any future jury to draw "adverse inferences"– in other words, to assume bad motive for destroying evidence.
But such a possibility is still a long way down a winding legal road that's just beginning to take shape six months after the bridge collapsed – killing six people, including a Structural Group worker who was atop the bridge canopy tightening a tension rod when the bridge collapsed.
"I don't know whether the rods are important or not," Bailey said in a hearing last month. "This could've been a mistake."
The rods are 1 ¾ inches thick – the same size as those being tightened in the truss that failed, so they could be significant, one lawyer argued.
The NTSB also collected rods of that size from the site and tested them, finding no issues with the materials, the agency said.
Glenn Fuerth, an attorney for Structural, declined comment but in court papers said there was no "willfulness or bad faith" by his clients and there was no prejudice because the rods were "extra material and were not used" in the bridge. He also stressed bars from the scene tested by the NTSB were "found by the NTSB to be without 'notable material issues.'"
"Here's the core question," the judge said near the end of the hearing attended by lawyers for 20 defendants and almost as many plaintiffs. "At the end of the day, does this have anything to do with finding the truth about the bridge collapse? That's what this is about."