ST. PAUL, Minn. Dozens of victims of last summer's bridge collapse in Minneapolis from surviving spouses to the parents of children riding on a yellow school bus have filed preliminary paperwork to sue the state.
The documents, obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, provide a glimpse into a brewing legal battle over the Aug. 1 disaster, in which the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted 60 feet into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring 145.
The first legal deadline requiring those injured to notify the state within 180 days is coming up Sunday. Lawyers described the notices as a formality that may not even be necessary to sue later, but the number of notices indicate that many victims are contemplating their options in court.
"This is the predecessor to the lawsuits," said Chris Messerly, an attorney for a pro bono coalition of law firms representing more than 60 bridge victims.
As of Friday, Attorney General Lori Swanson's office had received notice of potential legal claims from 73 injured bridge victims and their family members. Families of six of those killed also had outlined plans to sue the state for compensation. So did three insurance companies and the owner of the school bus.
Several notices offer a detailed look at the financial burdens felt by the victims and their families.
One such letter outlines the ordeal of Tina Hickman, who was eight months pregnant and on her way to a book club meeting when the bridge fell. She was found unconscious. Doctors delivered her baby by Caesarean section a boy who was apparently not hurt in the collapse and put Hickman into a medically induced coma for a month. Her lawyer, James R. Fink, estimated her medical expenses at more than $250,000.
Fink also outlined a plan to seek $250,000 for Hickman's "pain, disability, disfigurement, embarrassment and emotional distress," for a claim totaling $535,085 plus another $30,000 claim from her husband.
Families of those killed in the bridge collapse have up to a year to notify the state of potential legal action.
At least 22 of the notices were on behalf of children, many of them passengers on the bus. Many are still traumatized, according to attorney Wil Fluegel, who represents 10 of the bus riders.
"Many of the children, their parents tell me, still insist on sleeping with mom or dad at night," Fluegel said Monday. "One of the little girls routinely still wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, 'I don't want to die."'
Bridge victims don't stand to get much from the state because of a law limiting the government's liability to $1 million per incident. But lawmakers are considering a compensation fund that would offer more to those who gave up the right to sue the state. A joint House-Senate panel takes up the proposal on Tuesday.
The state set up a $1 million emergency relief fund in November, but so far only 11 bridge victims have claimed a total of $57,862 in lost wages, according to the Minnesota Department of Administration.
Once that fund is drained, bridge victims won't have any legal claims left against the state, attorney James Schwebel said. Many haven't asked for the aid because they fear it might close off other legal avenues, said Rep. Ryan Winkler, who is pushing legislation for a victim compensation fund.Lawyers for the victims are frustrated by their lack of access to the investigation, which is holding up lawsuits. Final findings from the National Transportation Safety Board are expected this fall. Most claims outlined in the notices accuse the state of negligence in its maintenance of the bridge. Others point to the potential liability of a consultant that inspected the bridge, and the contractor that was resurfacing the span when it fell.
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.