Too much pain, not enough money: How three lawyers divided state funds to I-35W bridge collapse victims
How do you put a dollar figure on someone's pain? That was the job of the three lawyers who allotted compensation to victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
The three personal-injury lawyers, chosen as the special masters panel, divided $36.6 million in state funds among 179 claims. In the more than four months they spent hearing the details of the victims' problems, Chairwoman Susan Holden and panel members Mike Tewksbury and Steven Kirsch were profoundly moved by the victims' stories.
The verdict of $21.6 million to the families of four young adults killed in a 2003 train-car accident was among the largest wrongful-death awards ever in Minnesota.
But the case is bigger than that, the families' attorneys said Tuesday. Maybe $45 million bigger. Claiming that Burlington Northern Santa Fe fabricated, destroyed and withheld evidence that prevented the families from recovering punitive damages, the families' lawyers asked a Washington County judge for sanctions against the railroad of $45 million or more.
Summing up the 35W panel's $36.6 million job, survivors and victim's families said it was handled well.
When they added up all the losses incurred by survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and the families of those who died, the compensation panel came up with a number exceeding $99 million. That was almost three times the size of the available state fund -- $36.6 million.
"I didn't see it coming at all," Sarah Shelley said of the accident that changed her life forever.
Sarah was the passenger on a motorcycle involved in a hit and run accident. The driver, Aaron Liimatainen, had his right leg amputated after the crash.
Sue Holden is chairwoman of the Special Master Panel set up by the Legislature to figure out how much money should go to each survivor of the I-35W bridge collapse.
Susan Holden and her team of lawyers have been working out a daunting math question: How much money should each survivor get from the state's 35W bridge collapse fund?
The city of St. Paul and a consulting firm were sued after a worker was swept away during a sudden downpour.
It was a quiet courtroom Monday when a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the heirs and next-of-kin of Joe Harlow was officially settled.
Harlow, 34, was one of two sewer workers swept to his death when a sudden downpour flooded the St. Paul sewer system on July 26, 2007. Harlow and Dave Yasis, 23, the other victim, were employed by Lametti & Sons of Hugo, which did the actual sewer rehabilitation work.
It's extremely gratifying to garner a $6 million verdict for the family of someone who died due to the negligence of someone else. But, the best part is knowing that an opponent who chose to ignore the rules is facing tough sanctions.
So say a group of five Twin Cities lawyers who represented four families following their children's deaths after a Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company ("BNSF") train crashed into their car on Sept. 26, 2003.
"It's been very intense to listen to the stories."
The "war room" is a conference room at SiebenCarey. Susan Holden is the general - the head of a special master panel appointed to oversee the distribution of $37 million in compensation to survivors of Aug. 1, 2007, the day the I-35W bridge fell into the Mississippi River. It's been daunting task for Holden, joined with Steven Kirsch and Michael Tewsksbury, who made the awards after reviewing and holding hearings on 179 claims.
Many say the process has helped them heal.
Victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse finished telling their stories to a special panel this week. In the past three months, a panel of "special masters" - chairwoman Susan Holden, Steven Kirsch and Mike Tewksbury - have immersed themselves in the lives of people who were profoundly affected by the Aug. 1, 2007, bridge collapse. The three experienced personal injury lawyers were appointed to evaluate each victim's circumstances and divide $36.6 million among 179 claims.
William Bongard was nominated as Attorney of the Year (2008) by Minnesota Lawyer, a legal publication.
The recognition, he said, stems from a case in Anoka involving a group of teenagers whose vehicle was struck by a train. There was a dispute over whether the teens, all of whom died in the incident, had driven around the traffic arms that come down when a train approaches. Bongard called the court case a "tough battle."
Minnesota Lawyer 10th Annual "Attorneys of the Year" Award
The award is reserved for a select group of attorneys who distinguished themselves in 2008 with their exemplary work. The criteria for selection include leadership in the profession; involvement in major cases or other newsworthy events; excellence in corporate or transactional services; and public service.
For both brothers, the motivation to become lawyers stems from a desire to help people.
Jeff Sieben, a personal injury lawyer with SiebenCarey, and Tom Sieben, a criminal defense lawyer at Sieben Law Office, are third-generation attorneys, preceded by their grandfather Harry and their father Harry Jr. And there are even more lawyers in the Sieben family, too, including three uncles who practice personal injury law.
"We're asking Cargill to take responsibility for what they've done."
A Minnesota family has filed a federal lawsuit against Cargill, claiming their daughter got E.coli poisoning from one of the company's beef patties that were later recalled.
The Hemmingson family says their daughter spent a month at St. Paul Children's Hospital; their medical bills and future medical needs are expected to top $4 million dollars.
Exposing The Errors
Mistakes happen to each of us. But when they happen in a hospital, the consequences can be fatal. For many years, we had no idea how often medical mistakes happened. One study estimated that as many as one hundred thousand Americans die every year from them. In Minnesota, an effort is underway to prevent medical errors.
Civil lawsuits have been filed against Chisago County in connection with a crash that involved a county van transporting veterans from the VA Medical Center at Fort Snelling.
Motorist Bobby Tomlin was killed in the crash on Interstate 35W in New Brighton. Van driver Richard Carroll, who worked for Chisago County's Veterans Services program, lost consciousness at the wheel and also died.
Attorney Paul Downes, who is representing Jessica Tomlin, argues in court documents that Chisago County is responsible because of its "negligent hiring and retention" of Carroll, who had a documented history of heart trouble.
“Every family, every survivor was hardworking, strong. These are the kinds of people I like to represent.”
At first mention, $36.6 million sounds like a lot of money. But try dividing that sum among the 179 eligible victims of the 35W bridge collapse and the amount quickly starts to look much smaller. That was the daunting task that faced attorney Susan Holden, chair of the Special Master Panel appointed by the state legislature to administer compensation for survivors of the collapse.
179 Claims Filed For Bridge Collapse Victims
Stories of loss and trauma were arriving by the box load at attorney Susan Holden's Minneapolis office all day Wednesday, the deadline for people to apply for damages from a $36.64 million fund allocated by the Legislature last year for victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
Holden is the chairwoman of a panel of seasoned personal injury attorneys appointed last spring to distribute damages for claims ranging from property loss to personal injury to death.
"This is an important part of the process, to tell their story of what happened and how it's affected their lives."
At a time when most people's bookshelves are stacked with whodunits, Susan Holden is reading with What is Life Worth?, the memoir by the man who managed the Sept. 11 victims' fund.
The book, and the question, hold a particular interest for Holden, chairwoman of the special master panel to compensate victims of the 35W bridge collapse.
MSBA President Brian Melendez bestowed the prestigious President's Award on one of his predecessors, Minneapolis attorney Susan Holden. Ironically, given the honor's name, it's unprecedented for a former MSBA president to receive the award.
The families of four young adults killed in a horrific train-car accident nearly five years ago were awarded $24 million by an Anoka County District Court jury that rejected earlier suggestions the victims had tried to beat a train to the crossing.
In its ruling, the jury determined Burlington Northern Santa Fe was 90 percent responsible for the crash and the driver was 10 percent responsible, said Bill Bongard, who represented the Rhoades family of Blaine.