Bridge victim fund clears Legislature, heads to Pawlenty

Marked cars
Cars that were traveling on the I-35W bridge when it collapsed were marked by law enforcement officials.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

(AP) - Nine months and four days after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, the Minnesota Legislature approved a $38 million compensation package for the victims today and sent it to a supportive Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously after clearing the House on a 127-5 vote. Senators observed a moment of silence in memory of the victims, before applause broke out on the floor and in the gallery above.

Pawlenty said he plans to sign the bill in the next few days.

Sen. Ron Latz
State Sen. Ron Latz sponsored the bill to create an I-35W bridge victims compensation fund.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"It's a needed and important thing for the bridge victims," he said at an unrelated Capitol news conference.

The bill itself recognizes "a catastrophe of historic proportions" when the bridge fell on Aug. 1, killing 13 and injuring 145.

Everyone who was on the bridge when it fell -- and their survivors and legal guardians -- would qualify for up to $400,000 under the plan.

Those whose injuries and losses were more severe could get more money for uncovered medical costs and wage losses from a $12.6 million supplemental fund. Exact amounts will be determined later by a panel of lawyers.

The bill also contains $750,000 for administration, and $610,000 for social services for a group of child collapse victims through Waite House, a Minneapolis community center.

"This bill fulfills the moral obligation of the people of Minnesota to the survivors."

"No other structure owned by this state has ever fallen with such devastating physical and psychological impact on so many," the bill reads.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, the bill's House sponsor, said the package ensures that victims will get the financial help they need now, instead of waiting years for lawsuits to finish.

He said the state may be able to recover its money in court after the cause of the collapse and the role of private companies has been determined.

"What we're doing is making sure that the survivors are not held hostage to that litigation process while that's being sorted out," said Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are still probing the cause of the bridge collapse. A final report is expected later this year.

Their focus so far has been on a design flaw involving gussets, the plates that connect steel beams, and the weight of construction materials at vulnerable points in the bridge.

Victims who take a settlement must give up the right to sue the state and other units of government in Minnesota, but they don't waive the right to sue others. The state isn't admitting any liability.

"This bill fulfills the moral obligation of the people of Minnesota to the survivors," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.

The Minnesota Supreme Court must appoint the compensation panel by June 30, and collapse survivors have until Oct. 15 to file a claim.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)