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Cook County, others settle lawsuits about 2003 fire

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Southtown Star
by Steve Patterson

In less than a week, a jury is set to be seated to determine whose negligence contributed to six deaths and 16 injuries in an October 2003 fire at a Cook County government building in Chicago's Loop.

On Tuesday, six of the defendants, including Cook County and five companies, opted to settle the lawsuits, paying $26 million into a fund that ultimately will be shared by 24 victims or their survivors.

But there still are three more entities, including the city of Chicago, proceeding in what could be a two- to three-month trial.

"We are in active negotiations with all of them to see if a global settlement can be achieved," victims' attorney Robert Clifford said, adding he doesn't have much hope it will happen before Monday.

At issue are coverage disputes among insurance companies about what percentage of liability each of them has in the case, something Clifford called "a lot of finger-pointing."

"It's kind of sad that families get involved in intermural squabbling between insurers," he said.

Cook County agreed Tuesday to pay $9 million through its insurer toward the settlement, while Aargus Security Systems and BGK Security Services agreed to pay a total of $11 million.

Another $6 million will be paid by firms involved in the design or construction of the Cook County Administration Building, 69 W. Washington St., Clifford said.

Settlements were presented in court Tuesday as attorneys began arguing about final motions before proceeding to trial.

It's expected to be an emotional trial that also threatens to prove embarrassing to the city's emergency responders.

Victims said they were ordered to evacuate the towering building, home to multiple county offices, but they found themselves trapped in smoke-filled stairwells because stairway doors locked behind them.

In addition to communication problems, firefighters allegedly waited until the fire was out before doing a stairwell search - leaving a 90-minute lag between the time firefighters arrived and the time victims were found.

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