The Minnesota Senate’s main budget committee set the price of compensating victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse at $25 million signaling delicate negotiations with the House over its $40 million plan.
The most significant question revolves around whether to cap compensation to individual victims, as the Senate bill would do. It sets $400,000 as the upper limit, while the House version has no cap.
Victims and their lawyers say the cap would leave the most severely injured and those who lost family members who supported them financially with big uncovered losses. If the cap becomes law, one attorney predicted it could prompt victims to reject settlements and sue to overturn Minnesota’s long-standing liability limits.
“The state’s taking a risk, by placing this cap, of getting rid of the caps for all cases,” said Chris Messerly, an attorney with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. “And if they put our clients in a position of having to pursue it, we unquestionably will have to pursue it for their sake.”
The Minneapolis freeway bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, killing 13 and injuring 145.
The compensation bill from Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, passed the Senate Finance Committee on a voice vote and next heads to the Senate floor for a vote, perhaps later this week.
Talks with the House would begin once the Senate acts on the bill.
Latz said his approach is the fairest to taxpayers and those hurt in other incidents who are bound by the caps. Minnesota’s liability limit for individuals rose from $300,000 to $400,000 at the beginning of the year; his bill would retroactively apply the higher limit to incidents on Aug. 1 or later, including the bridge collapse.
“If we don’t do caps here, who’s the next person who’s going to come down the line?” said Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.
Some panel members voiced support. Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said constituents were telling him they wanted to help bridge victims, but within limits. He said the cap would make it easier to vote for the bill.
Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen also offered a warning about the state’s $935 million deficit before inviting testimony from Messerly and Jennifer Holmes, whose husband, Patrick, died on the bridge.
“Whether the figure is $100,000 or $100 million in the bill, whatever the figure is,” the state budget must balance, said Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. With no such requirement, the federal government had an open-ended appropriation to compensate victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Latz’s bill would offer settlements to bridge victims for lost income, medical expenses and property damage. Pain and suffering could be covered if the person was on the span when it fell and sustained physical injuries.
A fiscal estimate assumed the families of the 13 who died and a dozen of the worst-injured victims would each get the maximum of $400,000, while 28 with serious injuries would get an average of $258,300 apiece and 132 with soft-tissue injuries and trauma would get an average of $30,700 each.
Settlements would be administered by a three-person panel including a retired judge and two others in the legal profession, appointed by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice.
By contrast, the House version would put a single neutral decisionmaker in charge of dividing up $40 million among the victims, with discretion to set the individual amounts.
Both bills include $680,000 for Waite House, the community organization that operated the school bus on the bridge when it fell. The money would be used for psychological counseling and other services for the children on the bus, many of whom are struggling with aftereffects of the trauma.
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