One big question: A fund for victims?

  • Article by: Pam Louwagie
  • Star Tribune
  • November 9, 2007 - 11:00 PM

A small group of legislators spent a long day Friday at the Capitol wrestling with a big question: Should victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse be eligible for more compensation than others who make claims against the state?

The state's current liability limits in court -- $300,000 per person and $1 million total per incident -- were at the heart of the matter, as members of the joint House and Senate subcommittee on claims debated the possibility of special funding for bridge victims.

Some legislators are trying to establish a victims' compensation fund similar to one that Congress set up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which victims who received money agreed not to sue.

Kenneth Feinberg, who calculated victim payments as special master to the 9/11 fund, testified that he thought the fund was "absolutely the right thing to do" because it was a unique response to a historically unprecedented disaster.

It was designed to discourage lawsuits against the airlines and also to demonstrate the generosity of the American people to the world, he said.

"You're dealing with a relatively modest tragedy," Feinberg told the Minnesota panel. "This is not 5,300 people filing claims. This is not 1,000 dead like in the Katrina tragedy. It's a relatively modest, from a public perspective, tragedy."

Thirteen people died and more than 100 were injured when the bridge collapsed on Aug. 1.

There were no 9/11-style victim funds, he pointed out, for Hurricane Katrina, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building or the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

"It raises a fundamental question ... why certain people should receive that type of generosity while others who are the victims of life's curve balls, through no fault of their own, don't receive that type of compensation," Feinberg said.

One of two survivors who testified Friday, Linda Paul, spoke of how her cheek had to be reconstructed and her eye reset, and said she had several fractured vertebrae and cracked ribs.

She said she's now living on workers' compensation payments and her retirement savings.

"My concern is for the future," she said. "Will I be able to return to my previous job?"

Several survivors have said they are frustrated by the state's response. Attorneys for some have cited mounting medical bills, lost wages and expenses not covered by insurance.

If the state decides it wants to help bridge victims, there are other ways to do it, Feinberg and others testifying Friday suggested.

Liability limits could be raised just for this instance. An emergency fund could be established, providing smaller payments to help victims with immediate needs while not preventing them from suing. Or the $1 million limit could be raised while the individual cap remained, and the state could try to settle cases quickly instead of going to court.

Feinberg's advice: If the state is going to do something, keep it simple and do it quickly.

Minnesota courts have allowed liability limits to exist, reasoning that governments are exposed to far greater risks than individuals and unlimited liability could harm their ability to function.

While pondering the nitty-gritty of how to help bridge victims, a few legislators kept coming back to the same question Friday: How can they be fair to everyone? What about the motorist who is injured when a snowplow accidentally rams their car, for instance?

Minneapolis attorney Chris Messerly, a spokesman for a consortium of law firms representing victims for free, said the bridge collapse is different from other tragedies because it involves the state and because of its scale.

The state may help the victims -- and citizens -- heal faster, he said.

"Is there any single greater man-made disaster that's happened in the history of Minnesota that has so riveted everyone in our state, in our nation and even the world, than this? I don't think there is," he said.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, co-chair of the subcommittee, said he was struggling with setting broad public policy.

"Can the people of Minnesota say to the family of Dru Sjodin that her life is worth less than the life of someone who died in the bridge collapse?" he said after the hearing.

The subcommittee hopes to have a recommendation by the end of the year.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

More: MnDOT fired the emergency response executive who failed to return to the state for 10 days after the collapse. A1

Online: For more bridge coverage, go to

Pam Louwagie •

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