Minn. Officials Weigh Fairness of Compensating Victims of Fallen Bridge

November 12, 2007

State lawmakers are considering whether to offer financial help to victims of a deadly interstate bridge collapse, who face mounting medical bills and other costs.

A joint House-Senate subcommittee met Friday (Nov. 9) to hear from collapse victims, lawyers, state officials and Ken Feinberg, the special master who ran the Sept. 11 federal compensation fund.

Feinberg parceled out more than $7 billion to 5,300 victims of the 2001 attacks, averaging $2 million for families of those killed and $400,000 for the injured. Two Minnesota legislators have proposed establishing a similar fund for the bridge collapse victims.

But some worry about acting before an investigation determines why the Interstate 35W bridge fell on Aug. 1, killing 13 people and injuring about 100.

They say there is a risk of raising expectations for victims of the next disaster, or favoring bridge victims over people hurt in other incidents who wait years to collect their due through the courts.

“Should we bypass that entire system for this particular group of people who are suffering? And would that be a fair thing to do?” asked Sen. Ron Latz, who heads the Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Claims.

It is rare for states to put a price on human life and suffering.

California did after the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed in a 1989 earthquake. But Rhode Island did not after a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100, and calls to compensate hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims went nowhere.

Minnesota law limits the state’s liability to $300,000 per person and $1 million per incident, an amount dwarfed by bridge victims’ losses, which could reach hundreds of millions of dollars, their attorneys said.

“If the state dares tell them, ‘Here you go, you all share the million dollars,’ that’s worse than saying we’re not going to give you anything,” said Chris Messerly, an attorney representing some of the victims.

The state recently paid $300,000 to settle with the family of college student Dru Sjodin, killed by a convicted rapist released from a Minnesota prison.

If bridge victims get more, “‘we would have to explain to Dru Sjodin’s family that her life was worth less than the life of someone who died on the bridge, and I don’t know how we would do that,” said Latz, an attorney who has worked on personal injury cases.

If the state does not set up a special fund, victims who press for a settlement above the liability cap likely face years of legal struggle.

The claims panel normally does not take up requests until victims have gone through the courts. Bridge lawsuits might not even begin until the National Transportation Safety Board pinpoints the collapse’s cause, which might not happen for a year or longer.

Victims could go after private companies that worked on the bridge, including the consultant that examined the bridge, the contractor resurfacing the deck when it fell and the company that installed anti-icing equipment, said James Schwebel, an attorney for another group of victims.

But responsibility for the collapse might rest with those who designed, built or repaired the bridge decades ago, making it impossible for the victims to get anything, said David Weissbrodt, a University of Minnesota Law School professor.

There’s no guarantee lawsuits will succeed.

“Sending them to court is probably condemning them to not get any recovery,” Weissbrodt said. “And if we care about these people, that’s why the legislation is necessary.”


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