Talks begin over compensation for Minn. bridge collapse victims


House-Senate negotiators met Wednesday to start sorting out their differences over how to compensate victims of the Minneapolis freeway bridge collapse.

Nothing was resolved.

The House and Senate bills are separated by about $15 million and a significant philosophical issue - whether payments to individual victims should be subject to a $400,000 liability limit in Minnesota law. The roughly $40 million House bill has no such cap, while the $25 million Senate version does.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty weighed in with a letter reiterating his support for the cap, even though some bridge victims might get less than full compensation. His letter made no mention of comments he made last week supporting limited exceptions for a small number of "truly extraordinary cases."

"I am concerned that settling claims without regard to the individual tort caps creates a fundamental inequity between the treatment of those seriously injured or killed in this situation from the compensation available to persons similarly injured in other situations," said his letter, sent Tuesday.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Pawlenty's position leaves room for compromise. He and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Ron Latz, have been talking privately and have a second conference committee meeting set for Friday.

But Latz said the Senate's definitive rejection of an attempt to offer individual bridge victims more than $400,000 hemmed in his ability to negotiate.

"I don't see how I can go back to the Senate without caps," said Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.

The Senate caps would affect about 25 victims and their families - 13 who died and the 12 most severely injured when the Interstate 35W bridge fell on Aug. 1.

Jennifer Holmes, whose husband was killed, and Brad Coulter, who was injured along with his wife and daughters, both said they face costs and losses totaling more than $1 million. They pressed lawmakers to find a way to offer them and similar victims more than $400,000.

"It's true that no amount of money will ever replace what my children and I have lost," said Holmes, who brought the last family photograph showing her husband, Patrick. "You can't replace that, but if I'm helped appropriately I'll have the peace of mind knowing that I can take care of my family."

Still, support for the caps came from a woman who hurt her eye and back in the collapse.

"It comes down to two issues," Linda Paul told the panel. "One is the rule of the law and the second is the likelihood that entities other than the state of Minnesota are also liable for what happened."