Siding with arguments of transportation-safety officials, a federal judge blocked an attempt by the Miami Herald to get records related to a March bridge collapse at Florida International University that killed six people.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Stafford quashed a ruling by a state-court judge that would have required the Florida Department of Transportation to turn over records requested by the Herald. Stafford, who ruled in favor of the National Transportation Safety Board, also dismissed the case.
The NTSB went to federal court after Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll ruled in August that state public-records laws required the Florida transportation department to turn over bridge-related records from Feb. 20 to March 17. The pedestrian bridge collapsed March 15.
Federal officials objected to releasing the records during an investigation led by the NTSB. Staffordâs ruling focused, in part, on the interplay between state and federal courts and the NTSBâs arguments that the legal concept of âsovereign immunityâ shielded it from the state lawsuit.
While the public-records case was filed against the Florida Department of Transportation, Stafford agreed with arguments that the NTSB was a âreal party in interestâ because releasing the records would interfere with the federal agencyâs duties.
âIndeed, because the state courtâs order effectively overrules a directive issued by the NTSB, disregards the NTSBâs interpretation of its own regulations, interferes with the NTSBâs administrative decisions regarding the release of investigative information, places FDOT [the Florida Department of Transportation] â as a designated party to the NTSBâs investigation â in the position of having to violate its legal obligation to comply with the NTSBâs regulations and directives, and has the potential to cause harm to the NTSBâs congressionally mandated investigation, the court agrees that the United States is a real party in interest here,â Stafford wrote in his 47-page decision.
As a party in interest, the NTSB could not be subject to the public-records lawsuit in state court because of sovereign immunity, Stafford wrote.
âHaving determined that plaintiffsâ suit is one against the United States, whose sovereign immunity has not been waived, the court finds that the state court lacked jurisdiction to order the FDOT to produce documents that the NSTB, exercising its valid federal regulatory authority, directed FDOT not to produce,â Stafford wrote. âBecause the state court lacked jurisdiction over the matter, this [federal] court likewise lacks derivative jurisdiction over the matter. The state courtâs order is due to [be] quashed and the case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.â
The Herald filed the lawsuit in May after requesting a wide range of documents related to the bridge and the deadly collapse. The NTSB said the Florida transportation department could release records that existed through Feb. 19 but that it could not release later records because of the ongoing investigation.
âNormal NTSB procedure is to restrict release of investigative information until late in the investigation to ensure the integrity of the evidence received and to keep the parties focused on assisting the investigation,â Stafford wrote Friday.
How We Can Help
If you, a friend or a family member find themselves in a situation such as this, please call the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. at 305 670-3330 right away. Scott A. Ferris, Esq. is a licensed civil law attorney who has been practicing law since 1987. He is available whenever you need him to pursue your rights. Please learn about our firm at www.FerrisLawFirm.com.
Republished by the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A.