DENVER, AUG. 11 -- Gov. Roy Romer (D), accepting state responsibility for a freak bus accident that killed seven people and injured 15 others Monday, apparently spoke too soon today when he suggested a plan to compensate the victims and their families with funds above and beyond what Colorado is legally able to pay.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature rejected Romer's request that an exception be made to allow the victims and their families to collect more than the $400,000 allowed by state law.
Senate President Ted Strickland said the governor's request was probably based on his "legitimate human compassion for the people involved in the accident" and his concern about the worldwide effect on Colorado tourism.
But he said the request was one lawmakers cannot legally carry out because it would be retroactive and discriminatory.
"I support everything the governor is doing," Strickland said, "but it is premature and inappropriate to discuss any kind of potential litigation."
Despite the legislature's rebuff, Romer said he intends to pursue additional compensation for the victims.
The accident occurred Monday morning when a state highway crew sent a 7 1/2-ton boulder crashing several hundred feet off a mountain ledge and into the side of a tour bus carrying 28 people. The bus, which was traveling along U.S. 40 about 60 miles northwest of Denver, was ripped open. Six people died at the scene, and one died at a hospital Monday night.
Romer said the highway crew was involved in a routine maintenance operation designed to prevent rocks from falling onto the highway. He said there was no question that the state was at fault and ordered a special panel to determine the cause of the accident and recommend steps to prevent such accidents.
The governor has already declared a state of emergency, which allows him to use up to $100,000 in state funds to pay the victims' medical bills and the costs of transporting and lodging their families. Lifting the liability limit on the state's self-insurance fund would allow the state to exceed the $400,000 available to compensate all of the victims.
"I don't feel one can close their eyes and ears and heart when a limit is reached if there is a good reason for a person's loss to be fulfilled and be compensated," Romer said. "I want those who live in this state and visit this state to know we will be responsible for the loss -- economically -- and grief as a result of the accident."
Responding at a news conference to questions of whether his comments had opened the door to costly litigation, he said, "I don't think we should invite unreasonable claims, but we ought not to sit back as a bureaucracy and say, 'Let's see if you can penetrate this maze.'
"I am sick and tired of people trying to escape liability if it's there," he said.
Romer assigned a member of his staff to each of the victims' families. The approach is similar to that used by airlines in trying to reduce the claims of victims in accidents.
Romer's concern reflects the growing importance of tourism to Colorado's economy. Like other western states, Colorado is moving away from the traditional extraction-based industries of farming, mining and energy and toward attraction-based industries that serve tourists.
Romer said he wants to leave the impression with people that "when you visit, they take care of you."