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By Steve Karnowski, Associated Press Writer, Published April 17 2009

Interstate 35W bridge collapse victims accept settlement deals

MINNEAPOLIS – The state of Minnesota closed a chapter on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse Thursday by reaching final settlements with all 179 eligible victims of the disaster in downtown Minneapolis two years ago.

The settlements ranged from $4,500 to each of five survivors to more than $2.2 million for a woman who required extensive therapy for brain damage. Five other settlements were worth more than $1 million.

Susan Holden, the attorney who led the court-appointed panel administering the state’s $36.6 million compensation fund, said the settlements covered both survivors of the collapse and family members of those killed.

“The panel recognizes these settlements do not fully compensate the survivors for their losses,” Holden said. “We only hope that these settlements will help to ease their burden.”

Paula Coulter of Savage, who received the highest sum, said she was satisfied with the settlements, which added up to $3.1 million for her family. She said it’s hardly a jackpot, but will help cover heavy medical expenses.

“I kind of got the unlucky draw,” Coulter said of her injuries. “I think I’m grateful it wasn’t one of my girls, but I would have liked to have avoided it myself.”

Coulter, now 45, her husband, Brad, 45, and daughters Brianna, 20, and Brandi, 19, all suffered serious back and other injuries. Paula Coulter underwent seven surgeries but said she’s back to working 25 to 30 hours a week as an accountant. She said her husband and daughters are still getting physical therapy too, and Brianna had more back surgery in March. They have continuing pain but are doing well, Coulter said.

The Aug. 1, 2007, collapse of one of the state’s busiest bridges during the evening rush hour killed 13 people and injured 145.

Holden said there was a flurry of activity as the Thursday’s deadline for accepting the settlements approached. While many of the claims were settled and paid earlier, she said, lawyers worked to resolve the remaining details on a couple dozen cases this week.

By the end of the day Friday, Holden said, the panel will have paid 147 claims worth more than $31 million. The panel will be processing the final payments over the next couple of weeks, she said.

Victims had little reason to reject the settlements since Minnesota law sharply limits state government’s liability for the collapse. Attorneys for the victims strongly recommended they take the money. But those attorneys have already filed or plan to soon file lawsuits against some key consulting firms and contractors that worked on the bridge, and their liability isn’t capped.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded last November that the bridge collapsed because a crucial steel gusset plate connecting bridge beams was half as thick as it should have been, due to a flaw in the original design from the 1960s.

Experts hired by attorneys for a group of 117 survivors and families of victims dispute that. They contend a horizontal beam buckled first due to the heat that day, the heavy load of resurfacing materials on the bridge when it fell and poor maintenance. That theory gives them legal grounds for suing the consultants and contractors.