Bridge victims testify about financial hardships

At least four of the victims who were injured or lost loved ones in the I-35W bridge collapse say they are facing economic hardships exceeding $1 million apiece.

The House Government Finance Committee heard their stories Oct. 25 and discussed legislation that would create a Minnesota Disaster Victims Compensation Fund.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-44B), would allow victims of a disaster to file a claim with the Attorney General seeking compensation. The Attorney General would determine the amount of compensation, and those who accept the payment must agree to waive the right to take court action seeking recovery for loss.

Tom Hughes listened to the testimony of other victims while wearing a back brace that helps control his pain. He was on the bridge when it collapsed. The driver’s door of his truck was smashed in and he injured his arm.

The injuries have been severe enough to keep him out of work for the past two-and-a-half months. He works in construction, and he said his family would be in trouble “if it wasn’t for the support of the community in Ham Lake.”

Hughes said he would be appreciative of a bill that would offer support to his family, so long as the details worked out well.

Hughes said his story isn’t as terrible as some of the others he has heard. He listened to Jennifer Holmes talk about the death of her husband Pat. Pat was the wage earner in the family, and Holmes is now widowed with two children and expenses exceeding $1 million. Pat’s car landed in front of Hughes, and until Thursday, Hughes thought Pat had made it out alive.

Another victim who testified was Brad Coulter, who was in the car with his family at the time of the collapse. His extensive treatment for injuries will likely exceed $1 million, and he is working to navigate the paperwork involved in car insurance and subsequent health insurance claims.

The total appropriation for a Minnesota Disaster Victims Compensation Fund is not yet proposed. Legislators referenced California laws that offered up to $200,000 for those impacted by the collapse of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and I-880 freeway, which was caused by a 1989 earthquake. Those with medical expenses and income loss were offered $25,000 under that law, and those who lost a spouse or parent were eligible for $50,000.

Another public hearing on the issue is scheduled for Nov. 15. The bill will be taken up at the next session in February 2008, unless the Governor calls a special session in the meantime.

Winkler said he wants to make sure the failure of the bridge does not become a financial burden to victims of the tragedy.

“The goal is to introduce the stories,” Winkler said. “We need to get a sense of what the need is.”