Law firms are offering services to victims' families for free

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2007 - 11:32 PM

Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi is one of many Twin Cities firms working together. Also, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben firm is representing people on a contingency basis.

The Minneapolis law firm responsible for winning a record settlement against Big Tobacco almost a decade ago is among a consortium of Twin Cities firms offering free legal services to the victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

"We have the resources to do what is right," said Chris Messerly, a partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. Messerly said the firm already represents the Mora, Minn., family of construction worker Greg (Jolly) Jolstad, the only victim whose remains have yet to be recovered.

Other firms already involved are a who's who of Twin Cities plaintiff lawyers: Soucie & Bolt in Anoka, Harper & Peterson in Woodbury and Wil Fluegel in Minneapolis. "This situation cries out for something like this," Messerly said of the pro bono effort, which means the firms won't accept any fees even if they win large sums for the clients.

The Minneapolis personal-injury firm Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben is representing the families of some victims and injured survivors but is not part of the group offering free services. The firm was in federal court last week with a petition unsuccessfully seeking access to the collapse site for investigators.

"I don't think that will harm anybody's clients because this will be the most investigated bridge disaster in the history of the world," Messerly said, adding that the site will be heavily photographed, recorded and measured.

Messerly said the Schwebel firm was offered an opportunity to join the consortium but declined. "I don't begrudge anyone the right to charge a fee," he said.

James Schwebel, head of the firm, said it has been hired by the crash victims on a contingency basis -- meaning the firm will be paid only if there is a legal settlement or award. But he said the firm already has been doing an "extensive amount" of pro bono work for the clients, including finding sources of payment for medical bills, lost wages and funeral expenses as well as making sure the body of one of the victims was returned to Mexico.

"We have a dedicated team of lawyers and staff that have been working very hard on this," he said. "We have committed thousands of dollars to ensure the most competent experts in the country ... in order that we might have an impartial investigation to determine the real causes and hold the responsible parties accountable."

For any law firm involved, the cost of the lawsuit will be substantial in terms of investigating, hiring experts and taking up attorneys' time. Messerly said expenses alone will be well over $1 million and lawyers' time will far exceed that. "We're not going to ask anyone for money," he said, adding that the firm already has five clients. "We have people coming into our office every day."

No lawsuits have been filed yet. "We have to assess who's responsible," Messerly said of the collapse in which in which at least 12 people died. At least one other person is still missing, and numerous others were injured.

Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi has extensive experience with high-profile cases.

Phil Sieff, Messerly's partner at the firm and in the bridge effort, represented the family of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a 2002 plane crash with his wife and daughter. One of the firm's namesakes also happens to be Mike Ciresi, who led the tobacco litigation team and is now seeking the DFL endorsement in the 2008 U.S. Senate race against GOP incumbent Norm Coleman.

David Schultz, who teaches legal ethics at the University of Minnesota School of Law, said he can come up with two reasons for a firm to offer free work. One is noble, and the other is smart business.

"This plays well," Schultz said. "Then you get to Ciresi's firm as he's running for U.S. Senate. It helps temper any edge that he's just a money-grubbing trial lawyer."

Still, Schultz said, "If it's simply about doing good work -- it's an exceedingly generous offer by law firms in cases that could potentially make lawyers millions of dollars. For anybody who was on that bridge, you have a potential lawsuit."

Contingency fees traditionally run about 30 percent of legal settlements after expenses are subtracted, he said.

Schwebel said that he's proud of what his firm offers and that money isn't the only issue. "At the end of the day, the most important thing after all these folks have endured is that they feel comfortable with the lawyers they've hired to be their advocates whether that lawyer is paid a fee or whether that lawyer works for nothing," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Rochelle Olson • raolson@startribune.com

Rochelle Olson • raolson@startribune.com

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