I-35 Bridge Victims Seek Compensation, Answers The victims of the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse have until Sunday to decide whether they will sue the state of Minnesota. More than 70 claims have already been made. The deadline comes amid a move by lawmakers to create a compensation fund for bridge survivors.
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I-35 Bridge Victims Seek Compensation, Answers

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I-35 Bridge Victims Seek Compensation, Answers

I-35 Bridge Victims Seek Compensation, Answers

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Survivors of last year's bridge collapse in Minneapolis have until tomorrow to file paperwork that would keep open the option of suing the state for damages. At this point, no one has actually filed a lawsuit. Everyone's waiting to see if Minnesota lawmakers create a compensation fund for survivors and families of victims of the collapse, because under state law chances are the victims and families would get more from a special fund than from suing.

From Minnesota Public Radio, Tom Weber reports.

TOM WEBER: It sounds cliche but Mercedes Gordon really thought she'd never be her old self again.

Ms. MERCEDES GORDON (Survivor, Minneapolis Bridge Collapse): I remember being in the hospital, thinking - I wonder if I'll walk again. I mean, I could barely move my toes.

WEBER: Gordon's legs were crushed when the bridge and her car fell seven-stories and crashed into one of the walls that held up the span. Photos on a Web site she's set up show how close she was.

Ms. GORDON: So this is my car, and this car landed just on this backside of my car.

WEBER: So that you were up here?

Ms. GORDON: Yes, that's me.

WEBER: You were almost off the bridge.

Ms. GORDON: The car in front of me made it over.

WEBER: Wow.

Ms. GORDON: I was the first one to go down in the north end.

WEBER: Being one car off resulted in a month-and-a-half-long hospital stay and four months in a wheelchair. And Gordon will soon have her eighth surgery since the bridge collapsed. She says her medical bills are nearing a half million dollars, 75,000 of that has to come from her. And she might have been out of a job by now if her co-workers hadn't donated their own sick time so she can spend her days in physical therapy.

Gordon is one of more than 70 survivors who filed paperwork, allowing them to sue the state at some point, if it comes to that. Ryan Winkler hopes it doesn't.

State Representative RYAN WINKLER (Democrat, Minnesota): It's time for the state of Minnesota to be responsible to these survivors for what happened.

WEBER: Winkler is the state representative who's proposed legislation to have the state set up a compensation fund.

State Rep. WINKLER: One of the first duties of government is to provide for public safety and then Minnesota to provide a transportation network. The state of Minnesota failed to do that and these people paid the price.

WEBER: They haven't worked out all the details at this point, lawmakers don't even go into session until next month. But legislative leaders say they want some kind of bill passed by mid-March. If all goes smoothly, people could have their money from that fund before the new bridge is scheduled to reopen in December.

And you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in state government who does not think the survivors deserve some kind of compensation for medical bills or lost wages and property. The key is how to get the money. Without a special compensation fund, survivors could still sue, but the cases would likely last years, not months, and lawsuit awards against the state are capped. That means all the survivors would have to share $1 million.

Mr. CHRIS MESSERLY (Lawyer): It would be a greater insult to tell them to share a million than not give them anything at all.

WEBER: That's Chris Messerly, one of a number of lawyers who are representing bridge survivors. He says tomorrow's deadline is important to keep options open, but he hopes no one has to sue.

Mr. MESSERLY: Essentially, all of Minnesotans, the governor, legislators are holding hands, saying let's create a fund. There are some discussions on how to do it, but I think it says a lot for Minnesotans that they rally around a tragedy like this. I mean, it's a one-of-a-kind disaster.

WEBER: I'm standing on a bridge that's right next to where the old bridge used to stand, which means I have a clear view of all the workers who are building this new structure. Right now, there's just a few supports up so it doesn't look like a bridge yet, but everyone's still out here despite how freezing cold it is. It's about two degrees right now. They have to be out here because they have a very tight timeline - if they want the new bridge open by Christmas Eve.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Weber in Minneapolis.

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