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Brian Bakst, Associated Press Writer, Published November 07 2009

Company settles I-35W bridge lawsuits

ST. PAUL – Victims and the families of those killed in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 agreed Friday to settle their lawsuits against a construction company that was resurfacing the span at the time.

About 130 people are affected by the settlement with Progressive Contractors Inc., attorneys said. Hennepin County Judge Deborah Hedlund, who approved the agreement, said financial awards for victims will be kept confidential. Thirteen people died in the collapse and 145 were injured.

Similar lawsuits are pending against an engineering company and a design firm.

A separate settlement, also approved by Hedlund, requires PCI to pay the state $1 million to resolve claims the government had against the company.

Chris Messerly, an attorney for the victims and families, said they believed the settlement was in their best interests. Kyle Hart, an attorney for PCI, confirmed the agreement and said it settled for the maximum under its insurance policy.

Jennifer Holmes, whose husband, Patrick, died in the collapse, said she hasn’t been told yet what to expect from the settlement but she is anxious to put the bridge lawsuits behind her.

“The whole situation will never, ever be over because it affected mine and my kids’ lives for the rest of their lives,” Holmes said. “It’ll just be nice someday to not have to think of litigation and all that kind of stuff.”

A federal investigation blamed faulty design as the key reason for the collapse, but the report by the National Transportation Safety Board also noted that the weight of construction materials was a contributing factor.

“While PCI believes that last year’s findings by the NTSB cleared PCI of any wrongdoing, PCI is pleased that this settlement allows PCI to put this matter behind it while providing for compensation to the victims of the collapse,” Hart said.

Litigation over the catastrophe is not over. Lawsuits involving URS Corp. and Jacobs Engineering Group, both based in California, are set for trial in March 2011. URS had been hired to analyze the 40-year-old bridge and recommend ways to shore it up.

Jim Schwebel, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said Friday’s settlement moves the victims closer to a final resolution.

“It certainly puts the focus of this litigation directly where it should be, and that is URS,” he said. “It’s the company that had the primary responsibility for doing the bridge inspections.”

Messerly said attempts to settle the URS end of the case haven’t been productive.

URS brought a secondary case against Jacobs, which acquired the firm that originally designed the bridge. Jacobs has been trying to shield itself from liability by arguing that too much time has passed since the bridge was designed and built. Hedlund previously ruled that Jacobs can be sued, but it is appealing.

URS did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment Friday.

The state of Minnesota set up a victims compensation fund that has paid out $37 million in claims to people who agreed not to sue government entities.


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