Stepping up for bridge victims


Say that a part of my house falls down, injuring or killing a passerby. There’s little doubt under the law that I’ll owe damages commensurate with the harm inflicted, especially if there’s evidence I knew the structure was faulty and did little or nothing to correct it.

Minnesotans are just now wading into a debate over how to compensate more than 150 victims of such a mishap on state property, the Interstate 35W bridge. Bipartisan consensus is emerging that something should be done, but no one so far has ventured to put a price tag on it.

A few have suggested that fair settlements for the 13 deaths and 144 injuries, some catastrophic, will be a tiny fraction of the $400 million cost of rebuilding the bridge. That might be a tad optimistic, unless the state decides to play legal hardball with the victims and their survivors.

Minnesota could do that by invoking its sovereign immunity from liability and sticking to its statutory limit of $1 million in compensation per incident, not per victim. That would work out to $6,369.43 a person, if we think life and health are that cheap.

We probably don’t, but that still leaves open the question of how we do value those things, along with economic losses, pain and suffering. One instructive example comes from the federal government’s average payments of nearly $2 million for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Another is Minnesota’s $35 million commitment to relief from flood losses in seven southeastern counties.

Interestingly, sweeping governmental response to both those tragedies came within a few weeks, even though most of the harm occurred on private property and public liability for it was arguable at best. In the three months since the disaster on the state’s own 35W, much has been done to restore the broken infrastructure, but next to nothing to restore broken lives and livelihoods.

State government, in fact, has retreated into a pre-litigation defensive shell, marking the bridge site off limits to the victims’ lawyers and investigators and declining to comment on revelations that could establish its negligence – such as public employee union accounts last week that Minnesota Department of Transportation officials were moving ahead with plans to eliminate more bridge inspectors just six days before the collapse.

If that’s not enough of a smoking gun to prove state liability, how about this: The bridge, Minnesota’s busiest river crossing, was known since 1990 to be structurally deficient and at critical risk of collapse, yet the state had no plans to replace it until at least 2020.

That kind of neglect, of course, was dictated by decades of underfunding roads and bridges in the service of keeping taxes down. And the same pressure will apply to debates over how to compensate victims of the bridge failure, most likely in return for waiving their rights to sue the state.

Already, legislators have discussed the role of private insurance for those with crushing medical expenses. Indeed, insurers paid more than half of the $38 billion awarded after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a 2004 report by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice. But most of the insurance money went to New York City businesses.

Government doled out $15.8 billion and charities $2.7 billion. About $14 billion was paid on behalf of 7,000 killed, injured and displaced on Sept. 11, 2001. If the Aug. 1, 2007, victims and their survivors are treated as well, the state taxpayers’ bill could top $300 million.


But think how much simpler this whole issue would be if state and federal policymakers had ever settled a much longer-running debate – the one over universal, guaranteed health care for every American.

PHOTO=Bridge victims
Courtesy: Minnesota House of Representatives