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NPR Morning Edition

August 13, 2007


In manmade disasters, such as train wrecks, airplane crashes, and bridge collapses, investigators seldom find that one mistake solely caused the tragedy. Typically, smaller errors that individually would not have caused the calamity combine; they set off a chain of events that leads to disaster.

Government entities, private companies, and individuals who are links in that chain may face potential lawsuits, but how much the victims and their families may collect will depend on whether the state or private parties were at fault.

The State of Minnesota shields itself in a nearly impenetrable blanket of governmental immunity. Damages are capped at $1 million, not per person, but for all of those harmed by the I-35 bridge collapse.

Minneapolis attorney, Chris Messerly, says the cap is woefully inadequate.

MR. CHRIS MESSERLY (Attorney): Under the present law, people cannot get justice. They cannot be compensated. It doesn't matter how outrageous the act by the state or any governmental subdivision, the law is just stacked against Minnesotans and that's the way it is.

STAWICKI: Messerly says families have contacted him about potential lawsuits. He says if his law firm takes the cases, it would likely waive attorneys' fees. Messerly says he's encouraged other attorneys who represent victims to waive their attorneys' fees as well.

Government immunity originates with the ancient concept that the king is infallible, which translated into the belief that the state can do no wrong. In recent times, governmental immunity is based on the notion that people might be too generous with the state's money.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board said it had observed what it called "a potential design problem" with gusset plates at particular locations on the bridge. Gussets are critical members of a truss bridge. University of Minnesota Law Professor Fred Morrison says suing the architects or original builders would be futile.

Mr. FRED MORRISON (University of Minnesota): Suits regarding faulty real estate--and the bridge is real estate--have to be brought within 10 years of construction. So what that says is that you're not going to go back to the original design and that you're not gonna go back to the original construction to find liability.

Mr. RICHARD Bieder (Attorney): It's a horrible law. It's absolutely horrible.

STAWICKI: Connecticut attorney Richard Bieder. Bieder represented victims when the Interstate 95 Mianus Bridge in Greenwich, Connecticut collapsed in 1983. Three people died. While Minnesota's law is 10 years, Bieder says Connecticut's statute of limitations is only eight.

Mr. Bieder: We wanted to sue the architect, because they designed it in such a way that it was difficult to see the defect that occurred when you were inspecting the bridge. Even though you're designing an object that's destined to last for 100 years or 50 years, you can't sue the contractor or the architect, even if they were the principal cause of the fall-down.

STAWICKI: Plaintiff's lawyers are likely to target private businesses that had recent contact with the bridge. That's according to Minneapolis attorney David Potter who has largely defended companies in mass lawsuits. Potter advises companies who believe they're responsible to do the right thing.

Mr. RICHARD POTTER (Attorney): I think that in the end, at least the most successful defenses that I've done, is where the community believes that responsible actors, the people that the community would think are responsible, really reached out and really tried to take care of the people that are hurt and are usually left then are left with a few lawsuits by people, that if you do it right would be seen as greedy or overreaching.

STAWICKI: Potter says if the state is partially responsible, that will complicate the usual strategy. He says it would be hard for private companies to resolve the situation without knowing what the state is going to do. That means any compensation for the victims could be mired in the court system for years.

Last week, Governor Pawlenty said he was interested in creating a victims' compensation fund, but didn't offer any specifics. The Legislature has an option of last resort for residents harmed by the state but who can't get help through the legal system. It's called the Claims Committee. One of its chairmen, Senator Ron Latz, says right now any discussion of a fund for victims is premature, but he said the committee is looking to other states that have handled comparable situations.

Senator RON LATZ (District 44, St. Louis Park): In New York, they dealt with the World Trade Center by setting up, you know, a special compensation fund that was publicly funded. There have been other instances where there was no specific government response. I think at Columbine there were no specific government compensatory arrangements made. Once we put together all of our options we'll sit down and try to figure out the best thing to do.

STAWICKI: The man who created the special compensation fund for the World Trade Center victims is skeptical that such a fund would work in Minnesota, or anywhere else for that matter. Washington, DC, attorney Ken Feinberg says the 9/11 fund was unique. He says at first blush such a fund in Minnesota would appear to make sense, but upon reflection, he says, it would also set a precedent.

Mr. KEN FEINBERG (Attorney): Where does that line end? And on what principle basis do you say victims of a bridge collapse (deserve) public compensation, victims of a tornado, or victims of the failure of a fire inspector to adequately inspect a home before it burns to the ground killing its residents?

There's the slippery slope.

STAWICKI: Several state legislators say they're not ruling out assistance for victims of the bridge disaster and hope to fashion a solution that's going to work best for Minnesota.