Minn. bridge collapse settlement closes legal chapter for victims but money can't replace all

A $52 million legal settlement will help Minneapolis bridge collapse victims cover lost wages and pay medical bills. It won't do anything for the missed weddings, altered college plans or horrific memories from that August day three years ago.

Monday's announcement of a settlement with engineering giant URS Corp. brought mixed emotions for some of the 145 people injured and relatives of the 13 killed. They were torn between satisfaction from getting a state contractor to make financial amends and more anguish over lives grievously changed when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River broke apart during a steamy rush hour.

It was the final chapter in their legal fight, which already has netted money from the state and a paving contractor. All told, Minnesota and two contractors will have paid out $100 million.

But the dollars and cents only go so far.

Anne Engebretsen, whose mother Sherry died in the collapse, choked back tears as she spoke of getting married a month ago without her mother there to see it.

"The past three years have been extremely difficult but we are still here," she said. "The pain of our loss may never subside."

Garrett Ebling, a 35-year-old who suffered broken bones in his face, legs and arms, said he's staring at future surgeries and doesn't want anyone to get the impression victims are receiving a windfall.

"I don't think anybody's planning on being on 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,'" Ebling said. "That's not what this is about."

The settlement averts a trial next spring that could have opened URS to punitive damages. Victim attorneys had argued URS overlooked critical deficiencies that led the 40-year-old bridge to fail.

URS had argued its engineers didn't know about a design flaw in the bridge that made it vulnerable. In a statement, the company said the settlement was necessary to avoid drawn-out litigation and that it admitted no fault.

The two sides had argued in court last month over the victims' request to seek punitive damages. Hennepin County District Judge Deborah Hedlund, who had yet to rule on that request, worked with the two sides on the final terms of the settlement, including a private 13-hour session Aug. 14, the victims' attorneys said. The deal prevented disclosure of the settlement until Monday.

The terms called for $48.6 million of the settlement to go to victims, and $1.5 million to be set aside for a memorial to those who died in the collapse.

Jim Schwebel, who represented 34 people, said payouts should be completed by Oct. 1. "They finally have some closure in this monumental battle with the world's largest engineering corporation," he said.

Chris Messerly, a pro bono attorney for 103 separate victims, said individual payments would be determined by following a process the state of Minnesota used in compensating victims from a special fund set up after the collapse. He said the amounts would not be made public.

URS was the last of the major players to agree to a payout for victims. The state distributed $37 million from a special fund in exchange for an agreement that it wouldn't be sued. A paving company that had been resurfacing the bridge, Progressive Contractors Inc., reached a $10.5 million settlement last fall with about 130 victims and survivors. PCI also agreed to pay $1 million to settle the state's claims.

URS previously agreed to pay the state $5 million to settle a negligence claim.

The newest settlement doesn't end 35W-related litigation entirely. URS and the state have pending claims against Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., which acquired the now-defunct firm that designed the original 35W bridge.

For the Coulters, a family of four injured in the collapse, the settlement brings welcome financial security but doesn't make them whole. Paula Coulter has had multiple surgeries and lasting back pain. Her daughter, Brianna, skipped her freshman year at a southern Minnesota college to attend a community college closer to home during the family's recovery.

"If we can give back every penny and get everything we had, it would be worth getting back," Paula Coulter said. "It still doesn't give us back what any of us have lost."