A novel pro bono structure helped 100-plus plaintiffs who sued engineering company URS Corp. over the August 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse link up with a $52.4 million settlement last weekend. Thirteen people died and 145 were injured in the collapse of the I-35W bridge, which spanned the Mississippi River.
The settlement covered the gap between special masters' calculations of each victim's total damages and other payouts, said Chris Messerly, a partner at Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi who helped lead the 17-firm pro bono consortium.
Victims collected $36.64 million from the I-35W Bridge Victims Compensation Fund set up by the state of Minnesota in May 2008.
PCI Corp., the construction company that was resurfacing the bridge when its collapsed, settled for $10.15 million.
Messerly spoke with The National Law Journal about the pro bono consortium, the victims' fund and two Aug. 24 Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling in parts of the case that the consortium didn't work on. The ruling in In re Individual 35W Bridge Litigation reversed the lower court and held that URS cannot seek contribution from Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., the successor company of the entity that designed the bridge in the 1960s. The appeals court ruled that the two companies do not share a common liability. The second ruling deemed that, under current state law, Minnesota's claims against Jacobs for reimbursement of money it paid to the victims are not time-barred. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
NLJ: What were some of the interesting legal wrinkles in this case?
CM: It was the greatest man-made disaster in our state's history, so the stakes were higher [than in other cases]. There was also a punitive damage motion pending at the time the court called for a settlement conference. I suspect that played a role in the outcome. There were also some unique third-party complaints along with the wrongful death and personal injury cases. For example, [defendant] URS was making a claim against Jacobs. The state of Minnesota had a claim against Jacobs as well. So there were not only injury and death claims, but separate claims as part of the same lawsuit.
NLJ: How did the 17-firm pro bono consortium come about?
CM: When we decided early on to take the case pro bono, I was president of the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association, which is now the Minnesota Association for Justice. I talked with a number of other lawyers from other law firms. We said [Robins Kaplan] would be willing to take the lead and pay case costs if [other firms] join this group. We worked together as a team throughout the whole process. Someone called me who could only speak Spanish, so I found a lawyer who spoke Spanish who was wiling to join the consortium.
NLJ: What parts of the consortium experience could be applied to other major pro bono cases?
CM: We had teams focused on various aspects, such as brief writing and experts, and we coordinated all that. [Robins Kaplan Minneapolis partner] Phil Sieff spent a great deal of time essentially managing this consortium. The regular meetings would usually be telephone conferences so everyone was up to speed, and we'd have periodic meetings where all of the clients would come to our firm and meet all together. There was a joint prosecution agreement amongst all plaintiffs' lawyers to protect confidentially. We would also make assignments to various lawyers. [For example], there were millions of documents to review. So we'd coordinate schedules, and lawyers would spend a day or two or three doing that over the months that we reviewed millions of documents. Over 130 people in our law firm contributed over 20,000 hours to the pro bono effort. That kind of tells you the effort it took to coordinate, oversee, manage and provide direction to the work done for all 103 of our clients. [Also], every consortium lawyer had the ability, with password-protected access, to access any and all documents [online]. Although not all [documents] were produced electronically we made them so. We would send out a notice weekly of all the additional things that had been placed in the repository. We also paid over $2 million in costs, [including] expert costs, travel and depositions.
NLJ: Will Robins Kaplan be able to recover its costs for running this case?
CM: That remains to be seen. If we don't, that's OK. We made that commitment up front.
NLJ: Did the consortium level the playing field for the plaintiffs suing URS, a multinational corporation?
CM: The power of the group played a substantial part in allowing us to obtain every penny we asked for. A lawyer standing up there saying "I represent one person" has a little bit different sound than someone standing up and saying "I represent 100 people." It streamlined the litigation and gave us a tremendous advantage.
NLJ: How were you able to get the state to set up the bridge fund?
CM: I had quite a bit of experience testifying before Minnesota House [of Representatives] and Senate representing consumers. I knew the state's liability was capped at $1 million combined for everyone who was injured or lost their lives. We knew we needed to do something. I didn't think it would be likely we would be able to change the law through the courts. [So we] asked the legislature to create a 911-type fund, given the extraordinary nature of the catastrophe. I helped write it and testified in dozens of committee meetings. [But] there wasn't enough money in the fund. We wanted to make [the victims] whole by pursuing the cases against the companies that caused the disaster.
NLJ: Do the Minnesota Appeals Court rulings create more liability in these kinds of cases?
CM: If the court of appeals decisions stands, in many respects it will defeat liability because URS was told it had no claims against Jacobs. There's a separate issue of the state making a claim against Jacobs. The court of appeals says its OK because the state was given special rights in the [compensation statute]. The state has the right to go after other parties for contribution.