Bridge victims' settlement figures are released

  • Article by: JIM FOTI and MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: April 19, 2009 - 11:41 AM

Those receiving the funds expressed gratitude, but many also said they would rather not be in the position to need help.

Bill Wagner: Survivor
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Bill Wagner survived the 35W bridge collapse. He was a driver for UPS, but was injured so badly that he will not be able to work again. He recently received a settlement from the state of Minnesota for his injuries.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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For Adam Noe, $4,500 is fair compensation for the bumped knee he suffered in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. For truck driver Bill Wagner, $1 million won't come close to making up for all he has lost.

As state officials worked Friday to wrap up the payments to victims of the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse, the 179 people sharing the state's $37 million bridge fund were reconciling the dollar amounts to the damage to their lives

"I can tell you I got a lot of money," Wagner said Friday. "I can tell you it wasn't worth it."

The largest amount, more than $2.2 million, went to Paula Coulter of Savage, and lesser amounts went to her husband, Brad, and their two daughters. The family was in a minivan that flipped in midair and crashed upside-down in the wreckage of the bridge. All four had broken bones, and Paula almost died from a head injury.

"I think I'm grateful it wasn't one of my girls, but I would have liked to have avoided it myself," said Coulter, who is back to working 25 to 30 hours a week as an accountant.

Thursday's deadline for survivors to accept offers from a special state panel wrapped up a six-month process that included scores of hearings with individuals and families and testimony from medical and economic experts. Victims had little reason to reject the settlements because state law limits Minnesota's liability for a single event to a total of $1 million. Thirteen people were killed and 145 were injured in the collapse.

But the settlements mark the end of only the state's compensation program, and private lawsuits are already underway. Several survivors, including Wagner, as well as some relatives of those who died have sued URS, a consulting firm that advised the Minnesota Department of Transportation on maintenance of the bridge, and PCI, the construction company that was working on the deck the day it collapsed. More than 100 other survivors are part of a pro bono group that is planning to sue the two companies this spring.

"Everybody thinks I'm supposed to be happy," said Wagner, who got $993,205, the third-highest state settlement paid to a survivor. He was driving the UPS semitrailer truck that flipped off the side of the bridge not far from the school bus.

"I can't read. ... I have a difficult time remembering things," said Wagner, who is 47. His workers' compensation will end Aug. 1, he said, and because he missed a paperwork deadline, he won't collect long-term disability. He said he's taking 18 prescriptions that cost about $1,000 a month.

"Now if I'm going to be unemployable -- and that's what they're saying -- then I've got to survive on that money when I'm old, too, and a million bucks really isn't that big of a deal."

Alicia Harris, formerly Babatz, received a settlement of $254,500. "I'm very happy with what the state has done," she said Friday. Now 24, she swam to safety after her car fell into the river. "We're very grateful for the state coming up to the plate," she said.

After the accident, she was hospitalized for several days with a back injury and a few scrapes. Now Harris, who gave birth to her second child last month, said her physical injuries have largely healed, but "the fears and anxieties are still very prominent."

She and some others expressed surprise that the settlements were public information. She said she has no intention of looking into what other victims received.

"I don't really care what everybody else got," said Leesa Dentinger, who was trustee for the estate of her cousin Christine Sacorafas. "Everything went fine as far as I was concerned. It was a long time in coming, but it's over and done with and I think everybody can move on with their lives."

Joanna Shelton, whose daughter Jessie fractured her backbone in the collapse, was upset to learn that the amounts were made public. "I'm not even telling my family members what she got," she said. Jessie, now 20 and in college, received $164,500, according to the list made public by the courts.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, was one of the authors of the law that set up the fund. He said that because taxpayer money is involved, legislators aimed to strike a balance between transparency and privacy. The names and settlement amounts were deemed public information, he said, while the details of survivors' financial and medical histories remain private.

On Tuesday the Legislature will take testimony from survivors on the effectiveness of the relief fund.

Winkler also said the settlements aren't taxable. "It's not net new income," he said. "It's to replace what was lost."

Insurance companies also can't make claims on the money, said Susan Holden, chairwoman of the three-lawyer Special Master Panel that decided on settlement amounts. Insurers that paid medical or property claims to survivors and families signed waivers to that effect, she said.

The bridge compensation process started with a fund of $24 million, from which individual claims of up to $400,000 were paid. A second pool of $12.6 million was used for payments to families of the 13 people who died and to survivors with the most serious injuries.

Families of the deceased received the maximum $400,000 from the main fund, with most receiving varying amounts from the supplemental fund. By law, those additional amounts were based on such factors as past and future medical bills, past and future lost wages, and the number of dependents, Holden said.

The family of Patrick Holmes, a 36-year-old married father of two who lived in Mounds View, received the largest supplemental payment, $990,981, for a total of $1.39 million. By contrast, the survivors of four victims -- Paul Eickstadt, Vera Peck, Richard Chit and 2-year-old Hana Sahal -- received no supplemental funds related to those deaths. Hana Sahal's mother also died in the collapse; her settlement total was $719,923.

'A blessing'

The variations in settlements didn't bother Adam Noe, who received $4,500, the lowest amount paid out from the state fund. "I hurt my knee, but nothing was broken," he said Friday. He said more money rightly should go to Eric Paulsen, who was in the same car but was seriously injured and received $201,500.

Ryan Watkins, 15, a passenger on the school bus, got $41,000 but said that the money is not the important thing. "I got out of there with my life, and anything in addition to that is a blessing," he said.

Winkler and the dozens of other minors on the bridge are having their money put into special accounts that they won't be able to access until they are adults, although money can be taken out earlier to be used for medical expenses related to the collapse.

Also on the list is 22-year-old Jeremy Hernandez, the youth worker at Waite House in Minneapolis who helped more than 50 children get off a school bus on the collapsed bridge. Hernandez's settlement is $68,000.

A settlement of $19,000 is going to Wisconsin prison inmate Michael Stoner and an additional $488,000 to Crystal Manning, his fiancée at the time of the collapse. They were driving from Spooner, Wis., to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis to see her 2-year-old daughter when the bridge collapsed. In October, Stoner was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison on charges of injuring Manning's daughter.

As part of his sentence, Stoner is to turn over any bridge settlement money toward paying fines and restitution, said Wisconsin corrections spokesman John Dipko, who added that he did not immediately know what those obligations might be.

Staff writers Jeff Strickler and Paul Walsh and the Associated Press contributed to this report. jfoti@startribune.com • 612-673-4491 mlerner@startribune.com • 612-673-7384

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Bill Wagner: Survivor