Susan Holden built her legal career trying to get everything she could for people hurt in car accidents or by defective products.
Now the personal injury lawyer has the daunting task of dividing up $36.6 million among the more than 180 people who were on the Interstate 35W bridge when it collapsed last August and the survivors of the 13 killed.
"If there is not enough money to go around, then we have to come up with a fair way to distribute what is there," Holden said. "That is going to be no small challenge."
The compensation package was signed into law in May and capped victims' nine-month fight for state help recovering from the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, which injured 145.
Victims say amount too small
The package is an unprecedented response by Minnesota, which is only liable under state law for up to $1 million for the entire incident. Still, victims' attorneys say the amount is too small.
A panel made up of Holden, the 47-year-old former president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, and two other personal injury attorneys has until Feb. 28 to make compensation offers to victims.
The offers will be final — no appeals — and victims have 45 days to accept. Given the state cap on liability, few are likely to decline.
Those who were on the bridge when it fell, or the families of those killed, could qualify for up to $400,000 from an initial pool of $24 million, although most would likely qualify for far less than that. Those with the most severe injuries or losses would qualify for compensation from an additional pool of $12.6 million.
There have been other government responses to major tragedies, most notably the federal Sept. 11 compensation fund that distributed more than $7 billion among more than 5,500 victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But that fund had an unlimited amount of money authorized by Congress, unlike the Minnesota case, said Ken Feinberg, the attorney who ran the Sept. 11 fund.
"I didn't have this situation where one claimant said, 'You're giving me less because you're giving more to him — why?'" Feinberg said. "Here, the committee's going to have to divide up a finite amount of compensation. That's a tough assignment."
Victims to get private hearings
Holden has been able to get her clients to understand when to take a reasonable offer, even when they hoped to get more, said Paul Godfrey, who represents the Illinois Farmers Insurance Co.
"If there's anyone who can do it, she'll be able to explain to people, 'Maybe this isn't perfect but this is the best we can do,'" Godfrey said. "All she can do is be fair about it and splitting it up."
Chris Messerly, an attorney working with a coalition that represents more than 100 bridge victims, said he and other victims' lawyers have been scrambling to get their clients to see doctors so they can submit full medical documentation by the Oct. 15 deadline.
Victims will get private hearings with the panel before it decides in February how much compensation each should get.
Jennifer Holmes, whose husband Patrick was killed in the collapse, said she expects a "fair and good deal" from the panel.
"I'm confident that they'll follow the law and do what the law seeks to determine," Holmes said.