Miami Herald by Mary Ellen Klas
June 4, 2018
The Florida Department of Transportation went to court Monday in an attempt to keep the public and the news media from examining records that might reveal what caused the bridge collapse that killed six people at Florida International University in March.
The agency asked Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper to dismiss a lawsuit by the Miami Herald to compel the state to turn over emails, meeting minutes and other records relating to the bridge’s design and construction.
The Miami Herald sued after trying for two months to get the agency to release documents that could shed light on the tragic accident.
FDOT has stated that the records are public documents but has refused to release them, arguing that a federal law that shields the release of documents relating to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation preempts the Florida public records law.
At a hearing Monday, Cooper refused to dismiss the case and instead gave federal investigators two weeks to decide whether they want to defend themselves in a Florida courtroom before he rules.
The NTSB is investigating the collapse of the 950-ton bridge and has ordered FDOT not to release documents from after Feb. 19, arguing that federal law shields the documents from public view while the investigation is pending. But lawyers for the Miami Herald dispute the NTSB’s interpretation of the federal statute as it applies to the Florida case.
“I think it’s unfair, in the context of public record law, for NTSB to cause all these delays…just to delay the release of this information that was and always has been public record in Florida,” said Sandy Bohrer of Holland and Knight, the Miami law firm representing the Miami Herald in the case.
The bridge collapsed at 1:47 p.m. March 15, just days after cracks had been observed in the $14.3 million structure. On the morning of the bridge failure, FIU held a two-hour meetingwith its engineers and FDOT to discuss whether cracks in the structure presented a safety risk. The Miami Herald requested records from that meeting, as well as other relevant documents.
In a letter to Cooper on Friday, NTSB attorney Benjamin T. Allen argued that the federal law shields the release of any documents “related to the accident or incident” if that information was gathered by NTSB as part of the pending investigation.
But Bohrer argues that the prevailing federal statute applies only to documents that originated as a result of the investigation and does not apply to documents that originated before the bridge collapse.
“Public records made and received by the Department from February 20 until the bridge collapsed on March 15 obviously were not obtained by the Department during an investigation because there had been no accident, much less an investigation into an accident,” he wrote in a response to the FDOT motion to dismiss the lawsuit. [READ MORE]