Firm to pay $52M in I-35W bridge collapse

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS and ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2010 - 6:57 AM

A 14-hour negotiating session Saturday yielded a settlement with engineering giant URS that survivors call “bittersweet.”

For victims and survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, the legal odyssey ended Monday with the announcement that engineering giant URS Corp. agreed to pay $52.4 million to settle claims from the 2007 disaster that claimed 13 lives and injured 145.

But it was a bittersweet end for the people affected by the structural failure of the bridge.

"Today is an emotional day," said Anne Engebretsen Burke, whose mother, Sherry, died in the collapse. "The pain of our loss will never subside. I got married about a month ago and didn't have my mom at my side. That really hurt."

The settlement was announced at a hastily called news conference at noon Monday, which featured several of the survivors from the Aug. 1, 2007, calamity.

"We had two goals all along," said Chris Messerly, lead attorney for a consortium of attorneys in the Twin Cities that represented more than 100 clients. "One was to find out why the bridge failed and to tell the world and the other was to obtain justice for our clients. Today marks the end of that chapter."

The settlement obtained by the consortium totaled $42.4 million. A separate settlement for 34 victims totaled $7.7 million and was negotiated by the firm Schwebel Goetz & Sieben. Those settlements included money earmarked for a memorial.

Another $2.3 million fund was established to pay various insurance claims.

While terms of the overall settlement are public, individual payouts will be confidential.

URS Corp. officials issued a statement saying the settlement is not an admission of liability or fault by the company, which the state had hired as a consultant on the bridge.

"The I-35W bridge collapse was a tragedy, which the National Transportation Safety Board concluded was caused by a design flaw, compounded by large weight increases ... and construction loads on the day the bridge collapsed," the statement read. "URS was not involved in the design or building of the bridge, nor was it involved in any of the later construction work, including the resurfacing work being done when the bridge collapsed."

San Francisco-based URS said its insurers would pay the claim and that it was in "the best interest of the company and its shareholders" to avoid the cost of continued litigation.

URS had argued that its engineers didn't know about a design flaw in the bridge that made it vulnerable.

The settlement came nearly two months after lawyers for the victims asked Hennepin County District Judge Deborah Hedlund to allow them to seek punitive damages. In a memo to the court, the lawyers said URS documented the bridge was "clearly overstressed" and that "collapse could be imminent" if a crack developed.

Retired MnDOT engineer Don Flemming, who worked for URS at the time of the collapse, told his boss in 2006 that he was concerned URS project engineer Ed Zhou was "trying a little too hard" to tell MnDOT the bridge was safe. "The original design does not meet today's design specifications by a very significant degree," Flemming said, according to the filing.

The lawyers also said URS' computer analysis of the bridge's structural integrity failed to follow widely accepted engineering standards or common sense in selecting a temperature range to which the bridge was subjected. URS chose a range of 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while a 150-degree range would be required to accurately reflect Minnesota's climate.

The result, according to Messerly, was that on the hottest day of summer, the bridge's bearings were frozen when they "so desperately wanted to expand."

Bob Bennett, of the Minneapolis firm Flynn, Gaskins & Bennett, also represented some of the victims and conducted the depositions of Flemming and another MnDOT engineer. He came to the news conference with Messerly and co-counsel Philip Sieff.

"Aug. 1, 2007, marked the greatest man-made catastrophe our state has ever seen," Messerly, of the firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, said Monday.

"We should be entitled to believe our infrastructure is sound."

Firms work for free, discount

Messerly said his firm and others in the consortium provided 20,000 hours of legal work for free over the past three years and spent nearly $2 million out of pocket on experts' fees. Jim Schwebel said much, but not all, of his firm's work was free. Bennett provided his services at a heavily discounted rate, not free.

Most large law firms factor free work -- known as pro bono -- into their annual budgets, which allows lawyers to represent individuals or causes otherwise unable to pay for such legal representation.

"While no amount of money can compensate the victims for their losses, it is gratifying to achieve a settlement that will allow for payment of their medical expenses, reimbursement of their lost income and provide some measure of financial security to their lives," Schwebel said.

Monday's announcement represented the third payout to bridge victims and falls in line with a special master's prior determination of the extent of their losses. The victims previously were compensated through a special $36.6 million fund set up by the Minnesota Legislature and $10.1 million in a settlement from PCI Corp., the construction company engaged in the resurfacing of the bridge at the time it collapsed. Individual payouts from the state fund ranged from $4,500 to $2.2 million.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and an author of the state fund legislation, said the settlement "brings a human element" to a tragedy that shouldn't happen again.

"It didn't take long, frankly, after the bridge collapsed to shift from rescue and recovery to concrete and steel," Winkler said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office did not comment on the settlement.

To some, the settlement ends what might have been the best chance that the tragedy would be publicly examined.

"I do think that there was a hope that perhaps in a court of law, there could be, you know, the public airing of evidence," said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of a House transportation committee. "Maybe they decided this is what the victims wanted. I sure wouldn't want to second-guess their decision."

But Hornstein said he and others were still interested in "making sure that [a collapse] doesn't happen again."

Deal made in 14-hour session

Garrett Ebling was southbound on the bridge when it collapsed. He broke every bone in his face and spent two months in the hospital.

"In this nation, justice is spelled out in dollars. There is no doubt any of us on the bridge would trade every dollar for a bridge that was built right and inspected The list of losses is long," he said.

Ebling said the victims forged new friendships, have financial opportunities that weren't there and have learned to live in the moment.

"Today is a bittersweet day for us," said Paula Coulter, who was on the bridge with her husband and two daughters when it went down. "It helps to put closure on what happened. In a way, it helps right a wrong.

The victims were grateful to Hedlund, who spent 14 hours on Saturday hammering out the final terms of the URS settlement. It was finalized around 9:30 that night. Pending before her at the time of the settlement was a plaintiffs' motion to amend its complaint to allow a jury to consider punitive damages against URS in addition to compensatory damages.

Schwebel, representing 34 of the victims, said "URS Corp.'s concern over the potential of punitive damages was a factor in bringing about this settlement at this time."

Sieff said the victims have shown "individual and collective courage and determination that defies words." He called them an inspiration to Minnesotans.

With the settlement resolved, the story going forward will be about gusset plates and steel.

Still unsettled are claims brought forth by the state and URS Corp. against Jacobs Engineering, the successor engineering firm to Sverdrup & Parcell & Associates Inc., the firm that designed the bridge in 1960. That case is scheduled to go to trial in April.

Staff writer James Walsh and Mike Kaszuba contributed to this story. David Phelps • dphelps@startribune.com Rochelle Olson • raolson@startribune.com

 

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