Lawmakers puzzling over how to compensate bridge survivors

Just days after the I-35W bridge collapse, state Rep. Ryan Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley who also happens to be an attorney, had something of an epiphany.

“I was thinking from a state point of view, about what were the causes, what had happened, and whether we were going to have an open conversation about these things,” Winkler recalls. “Then I started thinking like a lawyer and started thinking that there was going to be a lot of litigation.”

Seemingly a “no-duh” realization, Winkler’s thought process proved to be slightly ahead of the curve. No doubt some political leaders—a certain governor and a couple of AWOL Minnesota Department of Transportation honchos—had similar, uh, worries, but Winkler followed it further: Time to set up a special compensation fund.

Rather than inventing a new way for careless Democrats to spend your hard-earned tax dollars, Winkler was taking a far more pragmatic approach. The idea, he says, would be to dispense money to the victims as a means of preventing what would surely be a multitude of lawsuits against the state of Minnesota. Aside from wanting to see survivors adequately compensated, he also felt the state would be better not wasting time and money fending off legal action. If victims and survivors bought into the fund, they would waive their rights to sue. “The idea is to keep the process simple,” Winkler says, “and get it done quickly.”

Worker’s comp model
Tricky on both counts. For instance, no one is really sure how many people were on the bridge and affected — not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well — by the disaster. “We’ve heard as many as 170 people,” Winkler says. Also, how to decide who gets what and how much?

One idea posited is that the state treat injury claims like worker’s compensation claims — for instance, a formula for 13 dead and 100 injured would cost somewhere around $8 million. But Winkler points to a “wide-open, unlimited fund” modeled in similar fashion after the New York 9/11 fund, which would drive the price tag up to nearly 10 times that. (The state has caps on how much can be given out in an event such as a bridge collapse — $1 million total, but that cap might be waived to thwart lawsuits. There is also a state cap of $300,000 on how much individuals can receive, something that might still be in play.)

Kenneth Feinberg, the “special master” of the 9/11 fund, has shared his experience with Winkler and others at the Capitol. “He has said it’s perfectly reasonable for us to designate a master and set up a fund now,” according to Winkler.

Still, an infamous round of political and personal scuffling over that fund could serve as a forewarning, and Feinberg cautioned against it. “Nobody will do another 9/11 fund,” Winkler insists. “There were 5,300 people who were paid $7 billion, and Feinberg was able to open checks directly from the U.S. Treasury.”

$1 million in donations
As for the second matter of getting it done quickly, that appears unlikely. Tim Pawlenty’s people have indicated to Winkler that the governor will support a fund. But the guv has thus far refused to hold a special session dealing with the bridge (the one earlier this year was limited to flood relief for southeastern Minnesota), and Winkler has little hope that Pawlenty will do so before the regular legislative session convenes in February. So, Winkler and other lawmakers are looking for an alternative, to see if there’s any way to dispense funds without first passing legislation. To that end, there will be yet another house subcommittee meeting today on the matter.

Private citizens have donated nearly $1 million that’s being handled by the Minneapolis Foundation, but it’s unclear what will happen to that money. And it’s not nearly enough.

Word among the survivors though, is that they’re feeling snubbed. “The biggest story is getting Minnesota to do something,” says Brent Olson, a White Bear Lake accountant who walked away from the fall with his wife, and is in close contact with a group of about 30 other survivors. “The people who were on that bridge haven’t seen a dime.”

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by dum dum alouwishes anton on 11/15/2007 - 11:06 am.

    “Rather than inventing a new way for careless Democrats to spend your hard-earned tax dollars” …yeh, unlike the FISCAL REPUBLICANS who’ve spent $1.6 trillion dollars carefully, huh?

  2. Submitted by g.r. anderson jr. on 11/15/2007 - 01:46 pm.

    mr. anton (or is that mr. pepper?): i appreciate the comment posted. the phrase was intended to be ironic–as in parroting the normal tax outrage heard so often these days. but you raise an interesting point.

    and one more point: i’ve heard from the Red Cross, and that organization is not handling any of the donations received so far. that’s falling to the Minneapolis Foundation. stay tuned for more.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Hanson on 11/15/2007 - 02:12 pm.

    Your information about the “$1 million fund” is misinformed. In response to the outpouring of public interest in supporting those affected by the bridge collapse, the MN Helps Bridge Disaster Fund was created to provide a way to pool contributions to meet the ongoing and longer term needs of the survivors.

    To date, all of the identified bridge survivors have been contacted by letter explaining how they can get support from the Fund for their bridge-related needs. Following that letter, most of these families have also been consulted by phone through United Way 2-1-1 to provide needed help.

    Of the approximately $1 million contributed to the Fund, More than $250,000 has already been distributed to help the survivors. As I write, additional financial support is being distributed based on the survivors identified needs and through the efforts of experienced community organizations.

    Examples of expenses paid by the Fund include funeral costs, car repairs, medical deductibles, insurance deductibles, and mortgage and rent payments, or home improvements needed to provide space for wheel chairs.

    Survivors and their families can access the MN Helps Fund by calling United Way 2-1-1.

    As legislators discuss ways to meet the longer term and larger scale needs of the bridge survivors, it’s great to see how collaborative our local community-based response to the collapse has been. We should be glad that, through the efforts of experienced, trusted nonprofit agencies, many of the needs these families have are being met right now.

  4. Submitted by g.r. anderson jr. on 11/15/2007 - 03:50 pm.

    jeremy and the others who are bombarding my email: mea culpa. trying to strike the red cross from the story. i had bad info from two different sources.

    thanks for posting on the minnesota helps efforts. a very good and noble start, but a small disbursement of money to groups is what’s happened so far. i stand by the original assertion that drives the post, which is that individuals and families have enormous medical and financial needs right now, and the state needs to be addressing that as we speak.

    again, i regret the error on including the red cross.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/15/2007 - 04:57 pm.

    It’s remarkable how quickly the state was able to let a contract to build a bridge and how slow they are to help people that were on the bridge.

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