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Does Minnesota Need A Better “Disaster Safety Net?”

November 26, 2007

St. Cloud, MN – Support is growing for a state "emergency disaster relief" fund, in the wake of deaths and injuries caused by the I-35 bridge collapse four months ago. State lawmakers have been holding hearings this month to consider strengthening Minnesota's current law, which limits the state's liability to $1 million per incident, no matter how many people are involved.

Some legislators say that's not enough to help those who suffer financial loss or physical injury through no fault of their own. Joe Crumley, president of the Minnesota Association for Justice, says the need for a better "disaster safety net" is obvious after the Mississippi River bridge collapse.

"The state of Minnesota never has to pay more than $1 million. That's the cap for all the victims of any single incident."

He says that doesn't begin to address the needs of the families of the 13 fatalities and more than 100 people injured, many hospitalized or out of work. One goal is to help these people, he says. Another goal is to set up a permanent system to help future disaster victims. Legislation is expected during the next session.

Crumley says the most immediate need is to provide for the victims and survivors of the I-35 bridge collapse. After almost four months, he says their needs still aren't being addressed.

"The state of Minnesota owned and was negligent relating to this bridge. The current law says that someone bringing a claim against the state of Minnesota can collect a maximum of $300,000 from the state, and all of the I-35 bridge plaintiffs put together would have to share a $1 million pool. It doesn't take a mathematician to see that is a fairly small amount of money, once it's divided by 200 people."

Crumley says it's not just about dollars and cents, it's about our empathy and humanity as Minnesotans. And, he adds, we expect those we elect to be accountable.

"The state of Minnesota has to take responsibility for its own negligence and mistakes. That's over and above the responsibility to take care of its citizenry, which is the responsibility of government everywhere. This is the same responsibility that any company or corporation that causes murder and mayhem, death and disability, has when their negligence causes these problems."

One proposal, by Rep. Ryan Winkler, would set up a "disaster survivor compensation fund," which lawmakers would fill with the amount of money needed. It would be similar to the package passed by Congress after 9/11, which covered loss of earnings, medical bills and burial costs.

Jim Wishner/Eric Mack, Public News Service - MN