Some bridge victims say they'll accept settlement

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Nine months after the bridge collapse that killed 13 people and injured 145 others, state lawmakers finally agreed on how best to provide compensation.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the legislation provides meaningful financial assistance, avoids lengthy litigation and caps the state's liability.

"I think we've reached a conclusion that is best for the people of Minnesota and is best for survivors and their families as well," he said.

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The deal allows for individual awards of up to $400,000 out of a $24 million fund. A second fund of $12.6 million will provide supplemental relief to survivors and victims families with the largest claims for uncompensated medical costs and lost wages.

There's also $750,000 set aside for administration costs and $610,000 to provide services to children from a Minneapolis community center, who were stranded in a school bus on the bridge.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the agreement includes the liability cap demanded by the Senate, while also addressing the House concern that those with the worst injures get extra help.

Winkler said lawmakers completed a lot of work in a relatively short time.

"For the state of Minnesota to develop an entirely new approach to addressing a highly unique and catastrophic circumstance is a timely response, and I think is one that we should all be proud of," he said. "And I think that the compromise that we reached reflects the best of the two approaches brought forward by the House and Senate."

Bridge survivors are praising the plan, which would require them to waive their right to sue the state if they decide to participate.

"It's a huge burden lifted off of our shoulders," said Brent Olson of White Bear Lake.

Olson has been spending a lot of time at the Capitol the past few months, watching the debate over victim compensation. He and his wife escaped physical injury in the collapse but will never forget the traumatic event. He said state lawmakers stepped up with a good plan.

"It's closure in a sense," he said. "It still has a few months to go through, but at least they know there some compensation. There's recognition that their lives financially are going to possibly be made somewhat whole."

Under the compromise legislation, the Minnesota Supreme Court will appoint a three-member panel to review claims and make settlement offers. That process will begin this summer and conclude in 2010. Victims will have 45 days to accept or reject a settlement offer.

Jennifer Holmes of Mounds View said she plans to take a settlement. Holmes' husband Patrick was killed in the collapse, and she needs compensation for his lost wages to help raise two young children.

Lost her husband in the collapse
Jennifer Holmes of Mounds View says she plans to take the settlement from the state. Holmes' husband Patrick was killed in the bridge collapse, and she says she needs compensation for his lost wages to help raise their two young children.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"There is no way possible that we can get that day back, or get back what we have been through in losing our loved ones or going through the numerous surgeries that people are still doing," she said. "But this does help in making sure that we have a safe future and we can do what we need to do. And we thank everyone here who worked so hard on it."

Holmes said she thinks most families want to participate in the compensation fund rather than sue the state.

Sen. Ron Latz hopes she's right. Latz said litigation could be an expensive and risky proposition.

"We believe that this is going to be an offer which the survivors would be well advised to accept," he said.

The House and Senate could take final action on the compensation fund bill early next week. In a written statement, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the bill provides needed relief and he looks forward to signing it into law.