Emergency Aid Approved for Minn. Bridge Collapse Victims

December 3, 2007

Victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse will get their first shot of financial aid from the state through a $1 million plan approved Thursday at the Capitol.

The emergency relief would count as an advance against bigger potential payments being contemplated by lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty. They are looking at more help for about 100 people who were injured and the families of the 13 who died in the Aug. 1 collapse.

Many have struggled not only with injuries, but also with money troubles. With no cause identified for the bridge’s failure, lawsuits are on hold. And it’s unclear how much victims will recover through the courts because of a Minnesota law capping the state’s liability at $1 million per incident or $300,000 per person.

One lawmaker told bridge victims more help was on the way.

“This is not something to take the place of the special victims fund,” said Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, co-chairman of a House-Senate claims panel that approved the emergency relief.

Victims can claim up to $10,000 in lost wages. They will have to submit pay records and documentation of death or injury and lost work time. The cap might go up if money remains after an initial round of claims.

The payments will be based on lost wages to avoid the lengthy and involved process of sorting out medical costs and insurance coverage, said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.

The cash will come from two existing funds set aside to pay legal claims. The Department of Administration’s Risk Management Division will process the claims in consultation with insurance adjusters and the attorney general’s office.

The state isn’t admitting any liability and won’t pay for lost wages already covered by workers’ compensation, disability insurance or other sources.

Several bridge collapse survivors waited hours for the vote by the Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Claims. Afterward, they said they were encouraged.

“They’ve recognized that there is this need. They have stepped up and found a way to get funds to those who need it without having to wait ’til the middle of February” when the Legislature convenes, said Brent Olson, who survived the bridge collapse without physical injuries.

“It’s a really good step,” said Kimberly Brown, another survivor.

Neither Olson nor Brown said they planned to claim lost wages, but they said the money will help others cover rent, food, car payments, higher auto insurance premiums and other basic expenses.

Some bridge victims felt overlooked when a special session for emergency flood relief in southeastern Minnesota didn’t address their needs, said Chris Messerly, an attorney with a pro bono legal coalition. He said some victims have injuries that will prevent them from ever working again, and the emergency relief is a start.

“It’s not a lot but it will help them get by day-by-day during this time of year,” Messerly said. “It’s something that they’re grateful for because somebody’s actually doing something to help them out financially.”

Pawlenty called the emergency relief “an important first step.”

“We hope these funds will provide a measure of relief in the near term while we work on a bipartisan longer-term solution,” the Republican governor said in a news release.

No legislative action was needed for the emergency relief, according to Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung, but the administration wanted approval from the Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Claims as a sign of bipartisan support. The panel voted for the plan.

Two legislative panels have been examining options to help the victims, including a compensation fund and the possibility of waiving the state’s liability limits.

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