15 Years Later: The I-35 Bridge Collapse and the Lessons Carried On
By Katelyn Kasella
Fifteen years ago this August, hundreds of lives were forever changed when a 1,900-foot section of the Interstate Highway 35 West bridge between Minneapolis and Saint Paul collapsed into the Mississippi River. Tragic news of the 13 deaths and 145 injuries quickly made headlines, hitting home for attorneys at Robins Kaplan LLP’s Minneapolis office.
“I immediately started wondering what we could do,” said Chris Messerly, a recently retired partner at Robins Kaplan. “My first thought was donating blood and searching for people, but I knew, as lawyers, there was more that we needed to do.”
Messerly connected with Phil Sieff, another partner at the firm, and together they hatched the idea to do what they do best – represent the victims.
They had two options if they wanted to provide representation, Sieff said. They could take it as a normal case and charge a fee, knowing very well that the state could have immunity and the victims could recover little to nothing. Or they could represent the victims for free – leveraging the resources and trial expertise of the firm to at least provide an opportunity for justice.
“When we proposed taking on the case pro bono to the board, even though nobody knew the full complexity of the situation, there was zero hesitancy,” Sieff said. “The board gave us their full, unqualified support.”
Over the next three years, more than 130 attorneys and staff members at Robins Kaplan contributed over 20,000 hours of free legal services, making it the most significant pro bono contribution in the firm’s history. Messerly and Sieff led a group of 17 law firms in providing free representation to more than 100 people who were injured or lost a loved one to the collapse.
“Phil and I each picked a role, and Phil’s role was figuring out why in heaven’s name this bridge fell. That was a monumental task,” Messerly said. “My job was to be the spokesperson and assist our clients with the media, and my other key role was heading up the legislative process to get rid of a 200-year-old law that said these people could basically get nothing from the state.”
The entire case was conducted in uncharted territory. None of the attorneys had experienced a case with such enormity and public interest, Sieff said. The work was truly all hands-on deck. Everyone from legal administrative assistants to new associates to the most senior partners contributed to the firm’s efforts.
“On any given day, this case was about 90% of my workload,” said Lisa Weyrauch, a paralegal who was hired at Robins Kaplan one month before the bridge collapsed. “I put in 4,122 hours from the beginning of the case to the end. But that was not unusual. People put in thousands of hours.”
Firm members found themselves stepping up in ways they never expected.
“We had clients early on who were facing financial ruin – there was no source of money in the first one to six months,” Sieff said. “We had clients that had PTSD so bad that they were too traumatized to go to the doctor, so a team member would take them. We had clients that were so traumatized that they were not able to meet in the office because the 26th floor is too high. We had clients whose entire families were extraordinarily hurt. Who takes care of whom? And these were daunting challenges to which our staff performed miracles. Literal miracles.”
In the end, Robins Kaplan and the other firms that contributed thousands of hours of pro bono work accomplished what they set out to. The firm helped secure a legislatively created $37 million compensation fund for its clients. In total, the group helped recover more than $77 million for those who were injured or lost loved ones. And at the last moment, they recovered an additional $1.5 million to build a memorial honoring those who died.
The mayor of Minneapolis proposed putting Robins Kaplan’s name on the memorial, which Messerly declined. “This isn’t about lawyers,” he said. “We just did the best we could.”
Nobody expected the results that the firm achieved. Nobody knew what to expect. But for Sieff and Messerly, helping to secure this monumental victory was the greatest honor of their careers.
“I came to the firm in 1981 because it had a strong commitment to pro bono, and being part of this was the highlight of my career,” Messerly said.
Now and then Messerly still hears from his clients from that eventful day. He gets the occasional phone call or dinner invitation. But most important, he gets to sit back and watch them move forward with their lives, knowing they have the answers they deserve.
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