Bridge survivors seek compensation fund

>MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Mercedes Gorden dropped a 1 1/2-inch thick envelope on the table, where it landed with a thud – just some of her medical bills since her legs were crushed in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

“I got a bill the other day or a couple weeks ago for $40,000, and I just laughed because what am I going to do with that?” she said, moments after a helper pushed her wheelchair up to the table.

Gorden and other survivors – along with relatives of two who died in the Aug. 1 collapse – want state lawmak1ers to create a compensation fund modeled on the federal victim compensation fund established after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Several spoke about their long journey back from the bridge disaster at a hearing in Minneapolis on Thursday. The collapse killed 13 and injured about 100.

Gorden, 31, of Minneapolis, said her medical bills already add up to almost $300,000 – a number that’s sure to grow. Filled with metal plates and screws, her legs and feet are still healing from six reconstructive surgeries. She will need more.

The disaster victim compensation fund proposed by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, would cover medical costs, economic losses and pain and suffering. Collapse survivors who accepted a settlement from the fund would give up their right to sue the state.

Winkler said the fund is needed because Minnesota law caps the state’s liability at $1 million per incident and $300,000 per individual. He and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the total cost of making all the victims whole financially would be a small percentage of the estimated bridge recovery and reconstruction costs, which are close to $400 million.

“One thing that we can do is make sure that failure of this bridge is not a financial burden on these individuals,” Winkler said at a legislative hearing in Minneapolis.

He added: “The needs are immediate and they are long term.”

Action on the bill probably won’t happen before the Legislature reconvenes in February, unless Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls a special session, which is unlikely.

Families could get financial help much faster from a compensation fund than from lawsuits, said Chris Messerly, an attorney working with some victims. Litigation can’t even begin until federal investigators determine why the bridge fell, which could take up to two years.

He said medical bills for some individuals alone will easily top $1 million.

Testimony from survivors and family members outlined the human side of the losses.

Jennifer Holmes cried when she talked about her husband, Patrick Holmes, who died in the collapse. She said she notices his absence in little things, like doing laundry and errands, to bigger issues like saving for their two children’s future.

“I just want them to have what we would have provided together,” she said.

Wearing a neck and back brace, Brad Coulter talked about escaping his vehicle with his two children and waiting for rescuers to free his wife, Paula Coulter, who suffered brain damage. Now, he said, she’s at a rehabilitation center learning how to walk again.

“She’s there to this day working hard to regain everything that was taken from her on Aug. 1,” he said.

Other survivors said a compensation fund could never erase what happened, but might help them move on with their lives. Gorden said settlements should account for future health problems and be proportional to the injuries each victim suffered.

“I just hope it’s all fair and equitable in terms of each person’s individual situation,” she said. “I would hate to get the same amount as somebody who got a scrape and a bruise.”