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$52 Million Settlement in Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

After enduring countless surgeries and hours of court hearings, victims of the deadly 2007 Minneapolis Interstate 35W bridge collapse reached the end of their legal fight after an engineering firm agreed to pay $52.4 million to settle scores of lawsuits.

The settlement by San Francisco-based URS Corp. - agreed to more than a week ago but kept quiet until Monday - resolves the last major piece of litigation brought by victims. All told, the state and two of its contractors will have paid out $100 million to the families of the 13 people who died and the 145 people who were injured when the Mississippi River bridge broke apart during rush hour.

The settlement averts a trial that had been set for next spring that could have opened URS to punitive damages.

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 protracted litigation and said it admitted no fault.

At a news conference, several survivors said they were relieved by the settlement and looking forward to getting on with their lives.

"In this nation, justice is spelled out in dollars," said Garrett Ebling, who broke every bone in his face and spent two months in the hospital with multiple injuries. But he said victims would "trade every dollar we receive from this settlement for an original bridge that was built, maintained and inspected properly."

Erica Gwillim, who plunged 85 feet into the Mississippi and suffered back and neck injuries, said the settlement was not a "complete way to get justice in this situation."

"Justice would have been for this to never have happened and for our bodies to be whole and our relationships to be whole," Gwillim said.

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 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 the 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 fight lawsuits by victims seeking compensation. The state paid out $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 million settlement last fall with about 130 victims and survivors. PCI also agreed to pay $1 million to settle the state's claims. And URS agreed to pay the state $5 million.

The 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.

Anne Engebretsen, whose mother Sherry died in the collapse, stifled tears at the news conference as she spoke of getting married a month ago without her mother 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."

 
By BRIAN BAKST
The Associated Press
Monday, August 23, 2010
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