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.

Going through his accident -- mild in comparison to the bridge collapse, DeLaForest said -- made him see more clearly what could have happened financially if his injuries had been extensive. He didn't know details of what was covered in his insurance policy beforehand and felt lucky his coverage was adequate, he said.

Stories of tragedy

Survivor Brad Coulter told of how he, his wife and two teenage daughters fell 65 feet, their van landing upside down on the banks of the Mississippi River.

All suffered injuries. His wife, Paula, is still recovering from multiple injuries, including bleeding and swelling in the brain that required surgeries.

Coulter, of Savage, said he doesn't yet know what their insurance will cover. He said that expenses will probably exceed $1 million.

Minneapolis survivor Mercedes Gorden, in a wheelchair after her legs were crushed when her car fell and slammed into a limestone wall, said she hasn't been able to wrap her head around the financial impact.

Jennifer Holmes, of Mounds View, whose husband, Patrick, was killed in the collapse, with a highway sign falling on his car, said she worries about the future of her two young children.

Shoreview resident Ron Engebretsen, husband of bridge victim Sherry Engebretsen, said that he and his daughters are going to therapists and that whether the visits will be covered is a "gray area at this point."

Survivor Garrett Ebling, of Minnetonka, who fell nose-first and had broken bones in his face requiring reconstructive surgery, said he feels blessed to have survived and called the proposed bill "a rescue effort."

Defining government's role?

Another hearing is scheduled for Nov. 15 when legislators will discuss how a fund could be set up and administered.

To those who question whether government should get involved in compensating bridge victims, Winkler said before the hearing that there is an easy answer:

"Taking care of the survivors ... is every bit a part of the reconstruction cost of rebuilding the new bridge," he said.

While about $1 million was donated to a "Minnesota Helps -- Bridge Disaster Fund," that money does not go directly to victims but instead goes to organizations providing direct help to victims, such as counseling or help paying immediate bills.

"That kind of fund is designed to help people get over a little bump," Winkler said. "This is more than a little bump."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-1702

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