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A week after the collapse, Julie Graves talked from her bed at Hennepin County Medical Center about what happened on the I-35W bridge. At her side was fiancé Brendan Kelly. Graves, who works at the Waite House community center, was at a hearing Tuesday to talk about how the kids with her on the bridge are doing.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Among the vehicles caught on the bridge when it collapsed Aug. 1 was a school bus, right, carrying about 50 kids who were returning to the Waite House in Minneapolis after a swimming outing. The experience has been a setback for the children, Julie Graves told legislators Tuesday.

Heather Munro, Associated Press

Cap of $400,000 per person proposed for I-35W victims fund

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 23, 2008 - 1:15 AM

Legislators are considering a new proposal to compensate survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse -- this time with a fund that would limit awards to no more than $400,000 per person.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and crafted with the Pawlenty administration in a bipartisan effort, represents another step in lawmakers' attempts to pay victims for losses not covered by insurance or other sources.

The new proposal differs from one already under consideration by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who drew up a bill for a Sept. 11-style compensation fund in which caps would not apply.

Complicating it all is a question about how to make sure that money from a state fund would stay in the hands of the survivors, as federal law allows insurance companies to recoup their costs in many cases.

"There's no amount of money that the Legislature can appropriate that is going to make the injured whole again or bring back the lives of anyone who lost their lives," Latz told fellow legislators at a hearing Tuesday. "The best that we can do is to deal with some compensation as an option."

While survivors could still sue private companies under both compensation plans, those who accepted money from a fund would give up their right to sue the state.

The fund may be a better deal for many: In court, the law limits the state's liability to $300,000 per person and $1 million total for everyone who sues over an incident.

Winkler, Latz and some other lawmakers agree $1 million isn't enough to distribute among the 145 people who were injured and the families of the 13 who died in the Aug. 1 collapse.

Latz said capping individual awards at $400,000 -- a new individual cap that took effect Jan. 1 -- is fairer to people who have been injured in other incidents involving the state.

Someone injured in an accident with a snow plow can be hurt just as badly as a bridge survivor, for instance.

"How do you look in the eyes of that person and say, 'You're being treated differently because you were not on the bridge when it happened'?" Latz said.

Still, at up to $400,000 each, the fund would have to be $5.2 million to cover families of the 13 who died. "You're looking at tens of millions of dollars when you add in injuries," Latz said.

He said he is willing to lift the $1 million cap, believing that the legislators who created it could not have foreseen something with as many claimants as the bridge collapse.

"It was unique in the scope, the number of people that died or were injured in one incident," he said.

Alex Carey, a spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the governor generally agrees with the concepts in the proposal and "hopes we can continue to work with these parties to agree on a victims compensation fund soon."

Winkler said he was encouraged by the movement toward a fund.

Both proposals were discussed at a hearing of the Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Claims at the State Capitol, where a handful of students who had been caught on a school bus in the collapse were on hand, along with other survivors.

More than 50 children on a Waite House community center field trip were thrust into the spotlight right after the collapse, but for much of the past five months, they have been struggling quietly, Waite House leaders testified.

The collapse has been a setback for the children, who hail from already struggling families, youth coordinator Julie Graves told legislators: "Some of them were maybe five to 10 steps behind the average kid who's got a lot of resources in their life. Now the bridge has kind of pushed them all about 15 to 20 steps behind."

Still, Graves said, the students are doing the best they can and will succeed.

One student, 14-year-old Diana Segura, said outside the hearing room that she still has back problems and gets distracted. The bridge keeps coming up in her mind, she said.

But, she said, she's OK. "I'm alive, so as long as I'm alive, I'm good."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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