Cook County, firms to pay $25.3 million to settle suits in 2003 Loop high-rise fireChicago still faces civil trial in blaze that killed 6, injured 16
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
by Michael Higgins
Victims of the fatal 2003 Cook County Administration Building fire will receive $25.3 million, including $9 million from the county, under a series of settlements reached Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court.
The last-minute deal allows the county and six other defendants to avoid a massive and potentially risky civil trial, set to begin next week, that will examine the fire in the 37-story structure at 69 W. Washington St. that killed six office workers and injured 16 others.
Meanwhile, the settlements allow the plaintiffs to focus on what they say are the most blameworthy defendants, including the City of Chicago, said Robert Clifford, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
"It's significant" to get the settlements signed, Clifford said Tuesday. "It unclutters the case. It allows us to present in a succinct way what we feel is proof of our claims."
In 22 lawsuits, the plaintiffs targeted what they allege were a series of mistakes by firefighters and the city's 911 operators, including poor communication and a failure to designate one stairwell for firefighting and one for evacuation.
Jury selection could begin as soon as Monday in a trial of seven of the 22 suits in the courtroom of Judge William Maddux.
Lawyers said the litigation ranks among the county's largest civil cases in terms of attorney hours, documents reviewed and witness depositions.
County officials said Tuesday that they settled because the entire $9 million would be paid from insurance proceeds, while a jury verdict might have outstripped their coverage limits.
"There's always a risk" in going to trial, said Peter Skiko, an attorney for the county. "It just made sense at this stage of the game to protect the taxpayers the best we could."
County officials admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.
The settlements reached Tuesday also include $11 million from two security firms, Aargus Security Systems Inc. and BGK Security Services.
The two firms continue to maintain their employees acted properly, said their attorney, Edward Murphy.
Four other defendants who settled Tuesday were companies that worked on the redesign of the building or its fire emergency systems: SimplexGrinnell; Competitive Piping Systems; Folgers Architects Ltd.; and Environmental Systems Design.
Plaintiffs' attorneys continued to negotiate Tuesday with the city and two other remaining defendants: 69 West Washington Management, the building manager; and UBM, a contractor that did work on the 12th floor.
"I can't really predict the result," Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department, said Tuesday. "I can only say that we're still talking."
Clifford said he had grown pessimistic a deal would get done.
"What I see is a lot of finger-pointing going on between the remaining defendants," Clifford said.
For the defendants, a trial would likely involve further rehashing of the criticism they faced in the wake of the fire, when two independent panels heaped criticism on the Chicago Fire Department and others.
A settlement would allow the plaintiffs to avoid testifying in court about the trauma of the day and their agonizing wait for rescuers.
At a court hearing last year, the plaintiffs' lawyers played a harrowing 8-minute phone call to 911 from Jody Schneiderman, a survivor who feared for her life as she was trapped in the southeast stairwell.
"You've got to open the doors," Schneiderman pleaded on the call.
Shouts are heard in the background.
Later, she complains she can no longer see.
"We don't have much longer," Schneiderman says in the recording. "Oh my God, I can't stand it."
Lawyers for the city argued last year that long-standing legal precedent makes the city immune from lawsuits based on the alleged mistakes of firefighters or other emergency personnel.
But in a key ruling last year, Maddux ruled the plaintiffs' allegations—if proven at trial—could overcome those normal immunities.
Maddux noted, for example, that the plaintiffs allege a firefighter ordered fleeing office workers back up into the locked stairwell, which soon filled with smoke.