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Texas A&M officials can't claim immunity in bonfire case, court says

Texas A&M administrators, although acting in the course and scope of their jobs, can be sued individually for the events leading up to the 1999 collapse of the 59-foot-tall bonfire stack that killed 12 people and injured 27 others, a state appeals court ruled.

The 10th Court of Appeals in Waco affirmed a district court ruling that clears the way for the case to go to trial in Brazos County court, even though attorneys representing the students and their families expect it to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

"The court has made it clear that the Texas A&M administrators cannot hide behind the skirts of the official immunity doctrine," said Fort Worth attorney Darrell Keith, who represents the parents of four students who were killed and two students who were injured.

"They can be liable in their individual capacities and roles that contributed to the bonfire collapse and the death and injury of many fine young people," he said.

Possible appeals

Lane Stephenson, a university spokesman, said the school does not comment on pending litigation. But Texas A&M administrators previously have argued that they are protected under the state's constitutional right that prohibits government agencies from being sued.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office, which has represented the university, is still evaluating the court's opinion and has not made a decision on whether it will seek an appeal.

In November 1999, the wedding-cake-like stacks of more than 5,000 logs collapsed as students were building it. A 90-year-tradition, the bonfire was burned on the eve of Texas A&M's game with archrival University of Texas.

Relatives and injured people sued the College Station university, claiming A&M officials created a dangerous event and were indifferent to the students' safety.

Keith compared the liability of the school administrators to those of a police officer who has a wreck in his or her cruiser. He said someone working for a law enforcement agency, even if enforcing traffic laws, can drive in a negligent manner and be sued.

Other lawsuits

Keith filed the lawsuits in 2001, and the district court ruled in 2005 that the individual administrators could be sued. But a special provision in the law allowed that decision to be appealed before the entire case was litigated.

The state lawsuits were initially filed across Texas in probate courts but were consolidated into one case in Brazos County, Keith said.

Texas A&M University and its bonfire advisory committee are no longer in court stemming from claims of sovereign immunity, said Keith's co-counsel, Jeff Kobs.

The Texas Aggie Bonfire Committee, which represents the students, and the Zachary Construction Corp., which provided cranes and crane operators to help build the bonfire, also are being sued and their cases are pending in court, Kobs said.

Red Pots settled

Similar lawsuits in the federal courts have been tossed out because the federal law regarding a state created danger was not established at the time of the bonfire incident. The federal judge also wrote there was no evidence that the officials acted with "deliberate indifference."

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

In 2004, the student leaders of the bonfire, or "red pots," settled out of court for about $6 million, said Keith. The money came from the homeowner policies of the defendants' parents.

Mediation continues among the parties not involved in the settlement. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson, now a Dallas lawyer, is serving as the mediator.

Since the collapse, Stephenson said there has not been an official on-campus bonfire. Smaller bonfires have been burned off-campus, but they are completely unsanctioned and university officials are not authorized to participate in an official capacity, he said.