Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
Robins, Kaplan (135)


After Betsy Sathers’s husband, Scott, died in the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in August 2007, she wanted nothing to do with attorneys. But when the confusing insurance paperwork The Am Law Pro Bono 100started to pile up in the months that followed, Sathers, 33, heard through a network of victims’ families that a group of lawyers was offering legal services free of charge. “At that time I thought, ‘How on earth could these people be doing this for nothing?’ ” Sathers says. Skeptical of the lawyers’ motives, Sathers had both her father and father-in-law call to “ check out” Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi partner Chris Messerly. He was helping coordinate the efforts of firms working pro bono for victims and their families. Sathers met with Messerly shortly thereafter in October and was impressed. “I saw the sincerity in his eyes,” she says. “It was more than just a case for him. It was a passionate cause.”

Sathers is one of 117 clients affected by the bridge collapse being represented pro bono by Robins, Kaplan and a consortium of 20 small firms across Minnesota. Thirteen people died and 145 were injured when Minnesota’s fifth-busiest bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River during the evening rush hour on August 1, 2007. “We weren’t there to carry people off the bridge that day,” Messer­ly says. “So we decided to do what we’re trained to do and help.”

Robins, Kaplan has dedicated more than $2 million in lawyer time to the victims’ cause—2,550 hours in 2008 alone. As of early May, the firm had also spent $1.2 million on expenses associated with bridge matters, including hiring medical experts and funding an independent study by the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, Inc., of the reasons for the collapse.

The decision to work on behalf of the bridge-collapse victims took less than a week, says Robins, Kaplan partner Philip Sieff. He was in his office overlooking the river the night of the collapse. Like people throughout the Twin Cities, Sieff spent the hours after the collapse checking on friends and family. But his thoughts moved quickly from his loved ones to the people on the bridge. Sieff, a mass torts litigator, realized that the collapse had taken place on state property, and Minnesota law capped the state’s liability for any single incident at $1 million, to be split among all victims. “I thought to myself that unless somebody stepped up to help, there was going to be an awful, horrible injustice here,” Sieff says.

Sieff eventually connected with Messerly, who was out of town on a trial on the day of the collapse. The two approached the firm’s executive committee, and by the next week the partnership had agreed to work pro bono for the victims.

Like Sieff, Messerly saw the limits on state payouts as a big problem. “We knew these people were screwed when it came to the law. The only way to fix it was to change the law,” he says. As president of the Minnesota Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group, Messerly had experience lobbying state legislators in St. Paul, so he took the fight to the legislature. During the three weeks of the 2008 state legislative session, Messerly spent between 80 and 100 hours a week shuttling from hearing to hearing with victims and their family members, including Sathers. Messerly testified at hearings 15 times over that brief span as the legislature considered setting up a fund to help compensate victims, and he helped draft the legislation that created a state fund for them.

The effort paid off on May 8, 2008, when Governor Tim Pawlenty signed a bill creating the I-35W Bridge Victims Compensation Fund. The bill set aside $36.64 million for those affected by the collapse and arranged for the money to be administered by three special masters chosen by the chief judge of the state supreme court. “The state stepped up and did the right thing in the face of a real fiscal crisis,” Messerly says. “For that, the state legislature and the governor should be commended.”

Robins, Kaplan and other consortium members represented more than 100 of the 179 victims who filed claims with the special masters panel. While 99 claimants had hearings with an individual special master, 70 presented their cases to the full panel of three, and ten waived their right to meet with a panel member.

With more than half the bridge collapse victims suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Robins, Kaplan paid for a leading doctor from Harvard Medical School to spend two hours with the special masters. “We had dealt with post-traumatic stress, but not to this extent,” says Steven Kirsch, a member of the panel and a shareholder at the St. Paul firm Murnane Brandt. “This was like a war zone.”

Even though the state paid out $36 million in claims before May, that sum doesn’t cover the victims’ damages. The legislature and the panel estimated that victims of the collapse experienced about $100 million in damages. That state fund doesn’t address the potential punitive damages that two companies who worked for the state could face, says James Schwebel, head of the Minneapolis law firm Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben. Schwebel’s firm has filed 24 wrongful death and injury cases against URS Corporation, a California consulting firm that had inspected the bridge for the state, and PCI Corporation, a construction firm that was working on the deck of the bridge at the time of its collapse. Both the inspection consultants and the construction company deny any wrongdoing. (Schwebel’s firm handled cases before the special masters panel pro bono; they are working on contingency on the wrongful death and injury cases. All of Robins, Kaplan’s bridge work is pro bono, the firm says.)

In early June, Messerly said the pro bono consortium was poised to follow Schwebel’s lead and file more than 100 pro bono cases against the two companies. Although some consortium clients opted to forgo another potentially lengthy process, Betsy Sathers decided to sue. “I can’t imagine going through this process,” says Sathers, “without having Chris to walk me through it.”

—Ross Todd | July 1, 2009

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