35W bridge victims' benefit package wins 1st round

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 14, 2008 - 10:32 PM

A bill to compensate victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse took its first legislative step Thursday morning by winning approval from a state House committee.

A proposal by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, to set up a Sept. 11-style fund passed the Government Operations Committee on a voice vote without dissent but not without debate.

Some Republicans questioned the standard such a fund might set for future catastrophes. The debate upset some bridge survivors attending the hearing. They met with an attorney afterward and made plans to come as a group to the Capitol on Feb. 25 to make their case for a fund.

"It's hard to hear some of the opinions that are offered," said Ron Engebretsen, whose wife, Sherry, died in the collapse. "People just don't tend to understand what we have gone through."

Committee member Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, voiced the most skepticism, saying that although his heart goes out to those affected, there is already insurance for property losses and a court system to deal with claims for things covered under Winkler's bill, such as pain, suffering and mental anguish.

Liability hasn't been determined yet, he reminded legislators.

"We do have a system that works," Emmer said. "I think you're going down that slippery slope where you're just going to create more problems and you're going to be asked for every exception -- every emotional exception -- that can possibly come around the corner."

Winkler's bill would set up a catastrophe fund modeled after the Sept. 11 victims' compensation package that Congress passed after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The fund is intended to remain in place for future catastrophes and could be refilled by the Legislature.

It would compensate for lost wages, medical expenses, burial costs and other expenses not covered by other sources.

Under the bill, claimants would agree not to sue the state and they would not be subject to a $300,000 state liability cap that they would face in court. Winkler estimates the fund would have between $30 million and $60 million to meet the claims of bridge victims.

What-if scenarios raised

The bill was referred to the House Public Safety and Civil Justice Committee, which will take up the measure Monday.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has said he intended to introduce a similar bill. His version would cap claims at $400,000 apiece, he has said.

Winkler and Emmer hammered out an amendment to bar lawyers from recovering fees from the fund.

Another amendment from Emmer -- creating a fund that would cover unreimbursed medical expenses only and leave other claims to the court system -- did not pass.

Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, said she found fault with the state's response to previous disasters.

"What we require is people to come begging to the Legislature," she said. "Those monies are then appropriated on a case-by-case, sometimes partisan approach."

Winkler said his bill is designed only for man-made catastrophes. The bridge collapse "wasn't an act of God, it was a failure of man," he said.

After the meeting, Emmer said he was concerned about who will determine which tragedy qualifies for special compensation in the future.

"Here are all the soldiers we've lost in this war," Emmer said, pulling out a list of the Minnesotans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. "You tell me why we don't have a special compensation fund for their children? I mean, it just keeps growing."

University of Minnesota student reporter Emily Banks contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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