The Atlanta Botanical Gardens Bridge Collapse
Legal Consequences & Remedies


By: Guerry R. Thornton, Jr., Member, Georgia Bar (Atlanta)

Author: "Mass Tort Litigation", National Law Journal (1/9/89);
Counsel in numerous complex tort cases, including Golden Dolphin Supertanker Case,
Peachtree 25th Fire Disaster and Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire.

Copyright © December 19, 2008, Guerry R. Thornton Jr.;
(Contact for permission to reprint or quote from this article)

www.netlaw.net Tel: 404 933 0298 Fax: 404 237 4148



     I. BACKGROUND:

     The modern industrial complex has spawned a field of law known as "complex litigation", or multiple claims related to one incident. The rapid growth of mass tort work-place safety began with asbestos cases and an entire body of law controls the handling of multi-party cases. This legacy has had a profound impact on employee rights and safety.

     A stark reminder of workplace hazards is evident in the Botanical Gardens Bridge collapse in Atlanta on December 19th. At this time, one worker is dead and around 18 were injured, many in serious condition. This horrific disaster is not only a tragedy for those involved, but could have significant legal and safety consequences for years to come. This is the second disaster with death and multiple injuries in Georgia this year. In January, an explosion at the Savannah Sugar Refinery killed and injured many workers. The Refinery litigation is proceeding, and new safety rules may be enacted. Likewise, the bridge tragedy may result in years of litigation and improvements in bridge design and worker standards.

     Investigators were immediately called to the scene to investigate the collapse. It is to early to speculate as to the cause, but what is known is this: a suspension bridge with vertical supports was being built in the tree top canopy near the Botanical Gardens; concrete was being poured into the structure; during the setting of the concrete, it collapsed and plunged workers forty-five to the ground.

     II. THE LEGAL RESPONSE:

     Our legal system has a large set of laws that will control the multiple claims that will arise from this disaster. These laws range from worker compensation and safety standards to premises liability, engineering, architect and construction negligence . The venues may span our justice system, from local award boards to full scale litigation in state and federal courts. Certain issues may set new bridge design standards and reform laws related to construction safety.

     It is vitally important for victims to understand the complexity of the legal choices that need to be made to secure fair compensation. Because of the large number of victims and tens of millions of dollars at stake, claims are often handled by experts in workplace safety, premises liability, bridge design, engineering and construction. As an investigation may uncover fault by many parties, from architects, engineers and equipment failure, to employee safety violations, claims may be brought against numerous defendants.

     After a respectful period of mourning and recovery, many families will need to address the severe impact they are forced to endure related to disabling injuries and death. Lost wages, diminished value of life, pain, suffering and lost loved ones may force many victims to seek redress. Our system is well-equipped to deal with large disasters, but the process is complicated and it can take years before justice prevails. See, Mass Torts, Rand Corp. (1983).

     First, claimants may seek lost wages, medical expenses and awards for disability and death under the Workers' Compensation Act. This involves administrative claims before the compensation board. This right is limited to scheduled injuries and award classifications. Payments under this act are made regardless of fault by an employer, and are usually lower than awards that can be obtained in litigation.

     Actions may be brought against other entities that share in the liability, such as inspectors, architects, engineers, contractors and construction companies. The 1989 Peachtree 25th office tower fire in Atlanta resulted in claims against numerous parties, including hazardous products, electrical engineers, equipment makers and the building owner. Parties may file in state or federal court if they comply with standing rules. A strategy must be crafted from a complex array of laws and facts that best serve the victims' rights.

     Claims must be brought within the time prescribed by law. This depends on the nature of the claim. All victims who intend to pursue a claim should decide within the first few months as to the type action and timetable for instituting suit. It is vitally important that qualified experts be present at the earliest stage to preserve evidence and protect victims' rights. This safeguard is needed because the defendants, together with insurance agents and lawyers, will be retained at the time of the disaster to access liability issues.

Victims of the bridge collapse will face challenges and opportunities in our legal system. Our judiciary can handle a large number of claims and fashion resolution plans through settlements or a full jury trial.

     [Notice: The statements herein are general in nature; it is not intended to provide advice in the context of any attorney-client relationship; any victim should seek qualified advice from a member of the legal profession; this article should not be relied upon for legal advice.]

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For More Information Contact:

Guerry R. Thornton, Jr., Attorney at Law, Tel: 404 933 0298 Fax: 404 237 4148

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