Bridge victims settlements made public

$36.6 million was distributed to 179 victims.

With the $36.6 million in settlement amounts for victims of the I-35W bridge collapse made public Friday, Minnesota legislators took the first step in compensating those affected by the disaster. The victimsâÄô compensation fund was paid out in various allotments for the 179 settlements. The money was taken from a special victims fund established by legislators. The settlement was welcome news to those involved in the bridge collapse, as Minnesota law typically limits the stateâÄôs financial liability to $300,000 per victim and $1 million total per incident , regardless of how many victims there are. The bridge collapse was different, as the Legislature appropriated the settlement funds last year. Settlements ranged from $4,500 to more than $2.2 million. The decision of how much money each victim received was made by a three-person panel. By accepting a settlement, victims are in turn waiving their right to file suit against the state. Paula Coulter , who was in a minivan with her husband and two daughters when it flipped in midair and crashed upside-down in the wreckage of the bridge, according to the Star Tribune, received the largest sum. Coulter suffered four broken bones and almost died of a head injury. Patrick Holmes , who died while he was driving home to Bloomington, according to the Star Tribune, received $1.39 million, the largest settlement in a fatality. The deadline for accepting the settlements was April 16. All parties who received settlement offers took them. âÄúThey are very appreciative of the state coming forward and providing funds,âÄù attorney Jim Schwebel said of the victims. He is not representing them in the state cases. Schwebel currently has 20 different lawsuits filed on behalf of bridge collapse victims against URS Corp. , who was in charge of inspecting and maintaining the bridge, and Progressive Contractors Inc. , the construction company that had more than 5,000 pounds of sand and gravel piled on the bridge the day it collapsed. Schwebel said the state is only one of the three parties responsible for the bridgeâÄôs collapse, with URS and PCI still needing to be held accountable. While the fund is the first of its kind for Minnesota, similar funds have been established for disaster victims elsewhere. The largest compensation fund on record was established for victims after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 . In that case, $7 billion of federal money was set aside for the fund, with the average payout being $1.8 million. When the Oakland Bay Bridge and Cyprus freeway structure in San Francisco collapsed on Oct. 17, 1989, due to the Loma Prieta earthquake, the California state Legislature and governor set out to create a victims compensation fund within 20 days of the disaster. California legislators set aside $110 million for the fund, with $71 m illion being paid out to the victims. Similarly, despite the state of Tennessee âÄôs own strict laws limiting its financial liability for such events to $1 million, when the Hatchie River Bridge collapsed on April 1, 1989 , more than $1.6 million was paid out to those affected by the incident. The act of establishing a fund like this is not one made lightly, and Minnesota officials looked to history, assembling a report on eight other bridge collapses to see how each state government chose to handle the incidents. They also looked at information supplied by Darryl Doke, the California lead supervising attorney general , who worked on the Oakland Bay Bridge incident. In the report, Doke stated that disasters such as the 35W bridge collapse require a different kind of legal strategy. The âÄúsearing electronic images of a national news anchorman shielding his nostrils from the stench of human decay emanating from the concrete and metal debris that once was a public viaduct,âÄù Doke wrote, changes the way the cases are viewed by the public and require a different approach from attorneys. Doke suggested that if a state is âÄúsignificantly exposed,âÄù or probably liable, it should take preemptive measures, such as setting up a fund for victims, settling early and out of court. While the state was unavailable for comment, Schwebel said he is glad the state stepped forward, doing the right thing and offering settlements to the victims. âÄîThe Associated Press contributed to this report.