Falling Slab in Bonney Lake Raises Questions about Our Failing Infrastructure

A young couple and their 8-month-old baby were killed when a concrete slab fell on their pickup.

[A] huge concrete slab weighing thousands of pounds fell from a Highway 410 overpass and landed on their Toyota pickup in Bonney Lake. The accident occurred as construction crews were working on a $1.8 million project to install a sidewalk and improve pedestrian access along the highway.

The State has a duty to keep the roads around/through its highway construction sites reasonably safe for drivers. This includes:

  • Clearly marking the construction zone
  • Posting appropriate warning and directional signs
  • Making sure the road is free of construction debris

The State and the contractor it hired didn’t do their jobs. The couple’s family can pursue a wrongful death case against the state and/or its contractor. (Wrongful death is the death of a person caused by the negligence of another.)

The Bonney Lake slab accident also raises a bigger question: When is the state responsible for infrastructure accidents—when roads and tunnels and bridges fail?

In this case there was active negligence—someone did something wrong. But what happens when a bridge collapses and there isn’t anyone working on it? In order for the State to be responsible does it need to know that the bridge was at risk of collapsing? Or should the State be strictly liable if one of its roads, bridges or tunnels fails?

Take the 2013 Skagit River Bridge Collapse for example. The bridge was inspected for cracks a year before the collapse with only minor work needed. Despite these precautions, it was the bridge’s outdated “through-truss” design that failed when an oversized truck passed through:

Nowadays, through-truss and other fracture-critical designs are avoided in most new bridges for moderate-sized spans. Using three or more parallel main beams or trusses allows the structure to survive a single component failure.

And how about the older bridges in the state—if we are going to require notice, what constitute sufficient notice? Months before the Skagit Valley Bridge collapse the State’s bridges were given a grade of “C−” by the Seattle Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Of [the 7,743 bridges in Washington state] 5% (391) are structurally deficient. * * * [T]he state maintains an aging infrastructure struggling to handle the demands of modern society. Already, 36% of Washington’s bridges are over 50 years old. Many bridges last well beyond this age, but as time passes, the cost of repairs increase and functionality decrease. This is especially evident in the 20% (1,548) of bridges that are classified as functionally obsolete because they either cannot meet current traffic demands or do not meet current design standards. Over the next 20 years another third of Washington state’s bridges will exceed their design life. State, city, and county departments of transportation have maintained a safe network of bridges to-date, but infrastructure must become a priority in order to provide the foundation for economic success.

So even if the State doesn’t have first-hand knowledge that each of those 391 bridges are deficient, isn’t a publication like the one from ASCE enough to create what’s know as “constructive knowledge” (construction knowledge is basically the legal term for “even if you didn’t know, you should have known”).

The State’s roads are even worse. The same 2013 State Report Card gave the state roads a “D+”.

There are more than 136,000 miles of roadways in Washington State, on which 87 million vehicle-miles are driven daily.

In the context of state-wide failing infrastructure, do we want to create more hurdles to hold the State responsible or make it easier for injured people to recover? Do you think the State is going to prioritize repair and replacement if it knows that it won’t be held responsible for its negligence?

Money is the only thing businesses and governments understand. It’s their language. It’s the way they make decisions.

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