Some survivors, families still wait for final 35W settlements

Bridge deck
A collapsed portion of the I-35W bridge deck.
National Transportation Safety Board

Thirteen people died in the 35W bridge collapse and 145 were injured, and while some of the settlement claims for the survivors and families of those who died have been paid, others are still waiting.

Two-and-half years after the disaster, victim Linda Paul, who is unemployed and with health coverage gone, is ready for the entire settlement process to be done.

"I would just like to say, 'OK, this part of things are over, I don't have to look at this anymore, I don't have think about this anymore [and] I can just get on with my life,'" Paul said. "But that's not the way it's going to be."

Paul, a South Minneapolis resident, was on the bridge as it collapsed. She remembers her vehicle pitching forward as it went down. She blacked out, and came to as rescuers pulled her out and brought her to Hennepin County Medical Center.

Paul suffered a crushed cheekbone, a damaged eye and back injuries. She spent months recovering from reconstructive surgery. She still has back pain and is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Paul is one of 179 people who have settled their claim with the state of Minnesota over the bridge collapse. Not long after the incident, state lawmakers approved a total of $39 million to settle claims.

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"I would just like to say, 'OK, this part of things are over, I don't have to look at this anymore."

Linda Paul has declined to reveal the amount of her settlement. She said it was more than the smallest settlement of $4,500, but less than the largest settlement of $2.2 million.

Paul said she is lucky because she was employed at the time, and many -- but not all -- of her bills were covered. Very soon after the disaster, she said she and her husband had to draw down savings and retirement funds to pay their living expenses.

Paul said the money from the state settlement was a big help.

After the state settlement last year, next in line to settle later in 2009 was PCI, the paving contractor repairing the bridge deck at the time of the incident.

PCI and its insurers have paid the state $1 million and victims $11 million. The most recent settlement came last month, but it did not include the victims.

URS, the San Francisco-based consultant hired by Minnesota for advice on 35W bridge repairs, agreed to pay the state $5 million to avoid a trial.

Linda Paul and other victims have filed their own suits against URS. A Hennepin county judge has set trial for June 2011.

Attorneys administering the state settlement found the victims had suffered more than $99 million in injuries and other losses, but they had only $39 million in public funds to work with.

Minneapolis personal injury attorney Jim Schwebel, who represents Linda Paul and more than two dozen others in their lawsuits against URS, said the people deserve more.

"The victims have received less than 50 percent of the amount of that compensation which was determined to be reasonable, so it's not as if they're going after multiple defendants trying to be overcompensated," Schwebel said. "They haven't reached the point of even approaching fair compensation for their losses."

Chris Messerly, a Minneapolis personal injury attorney representing another large group of victims and survivors suing URS, said some of the injuries were minor, while others were life-changing.

"The value of the cases varies dramatically, from well under $100,000 to well over $10 million to just pay wage loss, medical expenses in the past and future, and other losses that our law allows," Messerly said.

A settlement could come at any time if URS makes an offer agreeable to victims and their attorneys.

State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has led efforts to secure state funding for victims' claims. Latz points out that protracted litigation could take a long time.

"I don't know how long the trial will last, but assuming there are post-trial motions and possibly appeals at several levels, you could have five, six, seven years of litigation," Latz said.

URS had no comment on the victims' lawsuits. In an e-mail statement, the company said, in part, that URS' settlement with the state resolves Minnesota's lawsuit against the company without an admission of liability or fault by URS.

URS says the collapse was caused by a design flaw, large weight increases over the years and other factors. URS says it was not involved in the design or building of the bridge, nor was it involved in any of the later construction work.

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