MINNEAPOLIS - (August 24, 2010) An engineering firm that consulted on the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in 2007 has agreed to pay $52.4 million to settle the last major piece of litigation brought by victims, attorneys said Monday.
San Francisco-based URS Corp. had been sued by more than 100 people who accused the company of missing warning signs in the Interstate 35W bridge before its rush-hour collapse into the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died and 145 were injured.
The settlement averts a trial that had been set for next spring that could have opened URS to punitive damages.
URS had argued that 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 spent two months in the hospital with multiple injuries. But he said victims would "trade every dollar we receive from this settlement for a bridge that was designed, built and maintained properly."
"There's not a complete way to get justice in this situation," said Erica Gwillim, who plunged 85 feet into the Mississippi and suffered back and neck injuries. "Justice would have been for this to never have happened and for our bodies to be whole and our relationships to be whole."
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 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.
Chris Messerly, one of the attorneys for 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 an undisclosed 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."