State, survivors well-served by Legislature, legal community.
Minnesotans can be proud of the work of the Special Masters Panel that distributed $36.6 million to survivors of the 13 people who were killed in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and those who were injured on that horrible day in August 2007.
Remarkably, all 179 eligible recipients accepted the compensation, with settlements ranging from $4,500 to $2.2 million, depending on the severity of individual cases. In the process, all waived the right to sue the state, although several are taking legal action against two firms that worked on the bridge.
The fund was authorized by the Legislature, led by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. Their bill, which received bipartisan support, revamped a law that would have only authorized $1 million in total compensation.
But like nearly every good public policy outcome in the state, the effort went well beyond elected officials.
But 9/11 was still a useful model. The panel spoke to Kenneth Feinberg, who headed the 9/11 victim's fund, and members read his book, "What is Life Worth?" Concluded Latz: "The 9/11 fund was as much an international diplomacy statement as it was a compensation statement."
What kind of a statement the 35W settlements make about Minnesota became clear to Winkler. "One reason I think it worked well is that we have a terrific legal community in Minnesota. We have very high-quality lawyers, judges and kind of a practical legal culture here. It's not overly academic."
University of Minnesota Law Professor David Weissbrodt, whose office looks out on the reconstructed bridge, said the process could serve as a model for other states. "Minnesota has done this in the best standard about being concerned about the humanitarian results."
One of the key lessons is the value of volunteerism, which went beyond immediate aftermath of the tragedy and eventually included the legal community. "We thought the best thing we could do to help these people who were hurt or lost loved ones was to give completely free legal services," said Chris Messerly, a partner at Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, which has contributed more $2.5 million in legal services to victims. The firm was one of 20 from the Iron Range to southern Minnesota that contributed to the pro bono effort.
In the end, though, the words and actions of the victims and survivors were most powerful. "We got very little money,'' said Sandy Cermak, who lost a vehicle and personal property in the collapse, but "that's OK. The people who got really hurt should get the money.''
Winkler, whose bill created the fund, reflected on the painful, but ultimately healing, process. "I'm sort of a Minnesota exceptionalist. I think there is something unique about our community here and the civic mindedness and kind of pragmatism. I think [the process] brought out -- that best tradition of people's approach in this state of a concern for the common good and a very practical approach to doing it."