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Structures constructed over obstructions to highways or waterways, such as canals or rivers, in order to provide continuous and convenient passages for purposes of transportation. A bridge includes the necessary abutments and approaches that make it accessible. A public bridge that spans obstructions to a public highway is built on land owned by the state government for public use, while a private bridge is built on private property for the use of particular individuals who own it.
The construction of public bridges is a function of the state government by virtue of statute and is limited only by contractual or constitutional provisions. A state may exercise its power directly or delegate it to governmental agencies, such as a state highway commission. Cities and municipalities may erect bridges within their borders if authorized to do so by the state legislature. If a bridge is to be built within the borders of a state, the state has control of the project; but if the bridge connects two states, both states share involvement in the venture but must yield to the power of the federal government to supervise matters that have an effect on interstate commerce.
The state determines the location of a bridge subject to public safety and convenience considerations. It may grant a franchise (special privilege) to erect the bridge to a private bridge company that is chartered to build and maintain bridges. Such a corporation is considered a business affected with a public interest. A state agency may be organized to receive a franchise to construct a bridge.
The money needed to finance the construction of a bridge is usually raised by appropriations designed for the project—the sale of bonds pursuant to statute, special assessments, or taxation. The legislature decides whether construction expenses will be borne by the entire state or apportioned among its various subdivisions. It may create special taxing districts to finance the project as long as the district receives a proportional benefit from the bridge. State taxes cannot be used to defray the expense of purely local bridge obligations.
A reasonable toll may be charged for using the bridge when authorized by statute. The revenue collected can be used for governmental purposes as well as for the operating and maintenance expenses of the bridge.
The duty to maintain and repair bridges rests with the government agency or private company charged with their operation and maintenance. Statutes frequently require warning signs on guardrails and bridge approaches to caution drivers against known dangers. Civil or criminal liability may be imposed for damages resulting from the failure to maintain a bridge properly. No liability generally, exists, however, for any damages incurred by an adjoining landowner from Negligence or other wrongful conduct in the construction or maintenance of a bridge by a municipality or government agency unless provided by statute.
A government entity is often shielded from liability for general harm to persons or property caused by negligent construction, repair, or maintenance of bridges under the theory of Sovereign Immunity pursuant to statute. For example, in the case of Hansen v. State Dept. of Transportation, 1998 S.D. 109 (1998), plaintiff Hansen was seriously injured after driving her vehicle into an unmarked construction hole on an interstate highway bridge. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's decision to dismiss the case on the basis that sovereign immunity barred Hansen from suing the state's department of transportation. Many states have modified their immunity statutes to permit claims premised on gross negligence; others draw a distinction between ministerial (bound by judicial command) and discretionary duties, allowing claims only for negligence in the performance of ministerial duties or functions.
Private companies may be liable for harm if the law in the jurisdiction so provides. When a pedestrian bridge over Interstate Highway 29 in North Carolina collapsed in May 2000 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, 107 persons were injured. More than half filed suits, many naming as defendants the speedway, the bridge builder (a private corporation), and the maker of a grout substance that corroded the steel supporting the bridge. As of early 2003, none of the cases had yet completed trial.
Levy, James. 2003. "Corporate Defendants in Lowe's Motor Speedway Collapse Blame One Another." Charlotte Observer (February 1).