How should state help rebuild lives?

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2007 - 11:44 PM

AFTER THE COLLAPSE At Red Cross headquarters in Minneapolis, legislators heard from I-35W bridge survivors and family members.

Listening to tearful and choked-up survivors and victims' relatives tell about the tragedy and their losses, legislators took their first public step Thursday in considering whether to set up a fund to help victims of the I-35W bridge collapse.

A House of Representatives committee heard stories of lost love and support from spouses, of long, painful recoveries after surgeries to relieve brain swelling and rebuild crushed legs, of mounting medical bills and lost wages.

The hearing opened the state's consideration of whether to create a fund similar to one set up by the federal government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Legislators acknowledge that any such discussion is likely to include tough questions about whether the state should play any role in offering compensation.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, has drafted a bill that he plans to introduce when the Legislature reconvenes in February.

"The state really has two choices," Winkler told his fellow committee members.

Winkler said: "We can be in the posture of defending litigation from these survivors ... or we can establish some sort of fund or some sort of mechanism to get swift and certain compensation to these individuals."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office signaled possible support for a fund. His spokesman, Brian McClung, said in a statement that the governor believes the state "should assist survivors and the families of victims and supports the concept of a relief fund or other appropriate options to address their needs."

Thirteen people died and more than 130 were injured in the Aug. 1 collapse. Winkler's bill would establish a fund to cover expenses such as medical bills, lost wages and other costs not covered by insurance, as well as money for pain and suffering.

Funding would come from the state budget, but it could include private contributions and insurance money from contractors or others involved with the bridge.

Those eligible would submit an application to a special master, who would review cases and propose compensation. If survivors found the package acceptable, they would waive their right to litigation, Winkler said.

Several of those who testified said they are suffering losses and expenses that they estimate will exceed $1 million, according to Winkler and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the committee that met at the American Red Cross headquarters in Minneapolis.

Under state law, the government's liability is capped at $1 million per incident, regardless of how many people are hurt.

Neither Winkler nor other legislators ventured an estimate Thursday about how much money should be in the fund.

Discussion rather than debate

Rep. Chris DeLaForest of Andover, the lead Republican on the committee, asked survivors about their experiences dealing with insurance companies. DeLaForest said he was in a traffic accident last summer and had trouble getting some expenses covered.

After the hearing, DeLaForest said he understands arguments that people need to buy enough insurance for their injuries. "There is a level of personal responsibility we as society expect from citizens. And I think, more than that, it behooves individuals to take care of themselves. Speaking, I guess, as a Republican, you don't want to rely on government to take care of your most dire needs."

Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, replied: "You could expect people to have insurance, but could people reasonably expect to have insurance that would cover being on a bridge that collapsed?"It's a fair question. Absolutely," DeLaForest answered.

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