Minnesota Bridge Collapse Victims Accept State Settlements

April 21, 2009

The state of Minnesota has closed a chapter on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse 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.”

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

Victims had little reason to reject the settlements since Minnesota law sharply limits state government’s liability for the collapse. Lawsuits are pending or planned, however, against some key consulting firms and contractors that worked on the bridge; their liability isn’t capped.

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, 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 National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 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 that 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 survivors legal grounds for suing the consultants and contractors.

One recipient of the bridge fund won’t be able to keep it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Michael E. Stoner of Spooner, Wis., is set to receive $19,000 from a victims’ fund. But he is serving 7 1/2 years in prison for injuring his fiancée’s daughter and the terms of his sentence require him to turn over any money from the bridge fund to the state for fines and restitution.

He and his fiancée were driving to see the 2-year-old in the hospital when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, killing 13.

The girl’s mother will receive $488,000 from the fund. She wasn’t charged in her daughter’s injuries.

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