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Fire lawsuits settled for $100 million

Monday, April 28, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Michael Higgins

City officials agreed Monday to pay $50 million to victims of a fatal fire in a Loop high-rise, ending years of litigation over firefighters' response to the blaze and pushing the total settlement to a landmark $100 million.

The money will be split among the families of six office workers who were killed in the 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration Building,

69 W. Washington St.
, and 16 others who were injured.

At a news conference, Carol Melton, 41, who survived the fire, clamped her hands over her ears as attorneys played a frantic 911 call from a victim who, like Melton, had been trapped in a stairwell as it filled with smoke.

"I couldn't listen to that," Melton said later in a halting, emotional voice. "I'm just not at a place where I can do that."

Melton, who lost three close friends in the fire, said she imagines "the worst-case scenario" whenever she enters a high-rise. "I still have a lot of healing to do," said Melton, who had worked for the county public guardian's office.

The city agreed to pay $15 million in taxpayer funds and $35 million from insurers in an 11th-hour deal that averted a massive civil trial that was scheduled to begin Monday and could have lasted two months or more.

"This settlement allows the people involved in this tragedy and their families to avoid the trauma of having to testify in multiple trials,"
Mayor Richard Daley said in a statement. "I would like to again extend my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims of this tragedy."

The building's management company, 69 W. Washington Management, also agreed Monday to pay about $25 million, pushing the total payout from all nine defendants to $100 million.

Last week, several other defendants, including Cook County, agreed to settle for a combined $25 million.

The payout appears to match a record for Cook County, the $100 million settlement to Rev. Scott and Janet Willis, who lost six children in a fiery mini-van crash in 1994.

"For one incident, $100 million is the highest amount we've had," said Bruce Ottley, a law professor at
DePaul University.

A county panel that investigated the fire in the 37-story building leveled harsh criticism at the
Chicago Fire Department and recommended sweeping changes. Firefighters fought the blaze from the wrong stairwell, wrongly placed more emphasis on battling the blaze than on saving lives and failed to direct building workers away from trouble.

A second report commissioned by the state criticized the building management for everything from inadequately training staff to equipping stairwell doors with one-way locks that trapped victims trying to flee the fire in smoke-clogged stairwells.

Victims became trapped in a stairwell as smoke poured up from below as firefighters battled the blaze on the 12th floor.

The city decided to settle after weighing the risk and potential cost of taking all 22 lawsuits to trial, said Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department.

Management company officials also decided to settle given the tragic and emotional nature of the case, said Dan Boho, attorney for 69 West Washington. "It's a tremendously sad situation," he said.

The city and other defendants admit no wrongdoing in the settlements, but lead plaintiffs' attorney Robert Clifford said Monday that the dollar amount spoke for itself.

"You don't pay $50 million . . . because you have no measure of responsibility," Clifford said. The settlement is "certainly one of the largest in the history of this community, befitting certainly one of the largest tragedies."

For the plaintiffs, the settlements ranged from $159,000 to $11.7 million each depending on factors such as the severity of their injuries and the future expected earnings of those who died.

Although a record overall, the individual settlements don't approach those of relatives of Ana Flores, killed by a falling pane of glass downtown in 1999, and LaTanya Haggerty, an unarmed woman shot by police in 1999. Each settled for $18 million.

"That $100 million sounds like a huge amount, but you have to remember there's 22 plaintiffs here," Ottley said. "It could have been worse if they went to trial."

Jury selection had been set to begin Monday in the courtroom of Circuit Judge William Maddux. But lawyers instead spent much of the day meeting in Maddux's chambers.

City officials are typically immune from lawsuits based on the mistakes of firefighters or emergency rescue workers. But in a key ruling earlier in the case, Maddux had concluded that the plaintiffs' allegations—if proven at trial—could overcome that normal immunity.

Maddux noted that the plaintiffs alleged a firefighter on the 12th floor ordered fleeing office workers back up the locked stairwell shortly before it filled with smoke.

Such evidence might persuade a jury that the city showed "utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the plaintiffs' safety," Maddux wrote in the critical decision.

Meribeth Mermall struggled Monday to describe how she and a small group that included State's Atty. Richard Devine managed to escape the smoky stairwell through a door that was left ajar on the 27th floor.

"To relive it is just too painful," Mermall said.

Tribune reporter Dan Mihalopoulos contributed to this report.

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