After long wait, state has relief for 35W victims

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA
  • Star Tribune
  • May 2, 2008 - 11:23 PM

Nine months after the collapse of the I-35W bridge, a $38 million state fund is being created to help compensate the victims of the Aug. 1 disaster.

Amid hugs, handshakes and smiles, legislators announced agreement Friday on a proposal that would put a $400,000 limit on each individual award but set aside more money for those "extraordinarily impacted" by the tragedy. Gov. Tim Pawlenty quickly endorsed the compromise, which is expected to win formal approval at the Legislature as early as Monday.

For the victims, the announcement ended months of waiting as legislators debated competing proposals and -- for some -- erased a feeling that more attention was being devoted to the bridge than to its victims. Thirteen people died in the collapse, and more than 100 of the 183 who were on the bridge were injured.

"Back in August, we didn't know" what would happen, said Kimberly Brown, who suffered back, neck and knee injuries and until recently was seeing a chiropractor three times weekly. Some victims, she said, were wondering "why all they're talking about is the concrete, the building of the new bridge and we're sitting here with our injuries, with pain and totally messed up mentally."

Of Friday's announcement, however, she said, "I think it's awesome."

As a House-Senate conference committee sat at an impasse for a month, and some lawmakers walked away from the negotiations in frustration, legislators were urged by victims to reach an agreement before adjournment on May 19.

"Many of those letters went out, many of those contacts occurred, within the last week," said Jim Schwebel, an attorney whose law firm represents two dozen victims.

Two funds to be set up

The compromise, which would establish two separate funds, was reached at midnight, just hours after one prominent legislator publicly criticized the lack of progress.

One fund, totaling $24 million, would pay for uncompensated damages to victims and their families and would be capped at $400,000 per individual. A second fund, totaling $12.64 million, would be established to cover damages beyond $400,000 for those who suffered extraordinary losses because of the tragedy.

Under the second fund, legislators said, a first priority would be given to uncompensated medical expenses above $400,000. A second priority would supplement long-term health insurance, and a third would be to pay for wage losses.

Victims accepting the money would release the state from all future claims related to the bridge collapse, and the state, under the plan, would not admit to any liability in the accident. In accepting the funds, the victims would also relinquish claims against the city of Minneapolis and against the University of Minnesota, whose civil engineering department authored a study of the I-35W bridge in 2001 that confidently stated there was no reason to replace the bridge.

Victims would have until Oct. 15 to submit a claim and could see payments as early as February 2009. A special three-person panel, appointed by the state Supreme Court, would settle claims.

Legislators said the money should be enough to compensate victims for the majority of their losses, but acknowledged it would not cover pain and suffering losses and might not completely cover wage losses. "To say we are fully compensating all people through this bill is not entirely true," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the conference committee's co-chairman.

Lower limits in lawsuits

Lawyers for the victims said they expected most -- if not all -- to file a claim with the fund instead of filing a lawsuit against the state because going to court would limit an individual claim to $300,000 and cap at $1 million the total paid to all victims who filed suits. "I don't know anyone that isn't" going to use the fund, said Joel Carlson, speaking for a consortium of lawyers representing roughly a hundred victims.

Though most of the lawyers had agreed to waive their fees relating to claims against the state, the same may not be true as the victims turn to other legal targets. Schwebel said two of those targets are likely to be URS Inc., the state's consultant on the I-35W bridge, and Progressive Contractors Inc., the company that was working atop the bridge when it collapsed.

The National Transportation Safety Board, whose formal investigation of the collapse is expected to be completed later this year, has stated that the placement of extra weight on the bridge while it was undergoing repairs is being studied as a contributing reason for the collapse.

Several victims who attended Friday's announcement gave the plan an eager endorsement. "We are very happy and thrilled today," said Jennifer Holmes, whose husband, Patrick, died in the accident. But she also acknowledged that "there is no way possible we can get that day back."

A Senate study of the victims, released in March, predicted that compensation for the families of the 13 people who died and the 12 victims who suffered catastrophic injuries would cost the state a total of $10 million. Another 28 victims who had severe injuries would likely receive settlements totaling $7.2 million, the study stated.

Moments before the agreement was formally announced, Pawlenty issued a statement saying he would sign the legislation. "It provides needed relief and support for victims and family members," he said.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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