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Texas A&M bonfire settlement: $2.1 million

BRYAN -- Texas A&M University, a college bonfire committee and a dozen Aggie administrators agreed Tuesday to pay $2.1 million to four families of students killed and three others injured in the 1999 bonfire stack collapse.

The settlement was announced in the 361st District Court in Bryan nearly nine years after the 59-foot-tall tower of more than 5,000 logs crumbled as 70 people worked on the wedding cake-like structure.

Fort Worth attorney Darrell Keith, who represents the families of three students killed and two who were among those injured in the Nov. 18, 1999 accident, said he was pleased with the settlement.

“It will likely bring about the corrective justice so no other A&M student, former student or anyone working on or near Bonfire will be in peril of their lives or their safety because of the wrongful conduct that occurred on that very sad and tragic day in November of 1999,” he said.

The victims agreed to set aside a larger portion of the settlement, although details were not released because of confidentiality, and placed into an annuity to help support John Comstock of Dallas, a student who lost his left leg and suffered partial paralysis in the bonfire stack collapse. He was the last living person to be removed from the wreckage, his attorney Scott Sherr said.

Prior to the court hearing, victim families greeted each other with hugs, shared stories and photos of their children and grandchildren.

Greg and Jill Powell, of North Richland Hills, represented the deceased victims as the judgment was rendered. Their son, 19-year-old Chad A. Powell, was among 12 people killed and 27 injured.

“The whole goal was that no other family every has to endure this,” Greg Powell said, tearfully addressing the media. “Before we are through, we are going to make sure that nobody has to stand on the ground of the bonfire and say, ‘What has happened again?’ ”

Powell also thanked his Fort Worth attorney, Geno Borchardt, who took the case when others said it was a fight that couldn’t be won.

Of the injured, Dominic Braus, 27, of Waco, was in the courtroom with his wife and mother. Braus, a third-year law student at Baylor University, has a 6-month-old daughter.

“It’s been a long time and a real hard fight ... and now we’re ready to turn our attention to the rest of the culpable parties,” Braus said. “

Zachry Construction Corp. and Scott-Macon, which provided cranes and crane operators to build the stack, are also being sued.

The plaintiff’s attorney vowed to continue their fight with those companies, calling their lack of settlement “appalling and shameful.”

Texas A&M issued a formal statement Tuesday following the hearing, stating that the university contested the claims that it or its employees “were legally responsible for the deaths and injuries that occurred as a result of the Bonfire collapse.

“The University deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries that occurred on its campus,” the statement reads.Former Texas A&M President Ray Bowen, who was among the parties who settled Tuesday, ended the bonfire tradition on July 26, 2002. He agreed that any future bonfires would adhere to guidelines set out in the Texas Engineering Practice Act.

On Tuesday, the University also agreed to seek an outside engineering consultant not affiliated with the college to “determine whether any proposed bonfire activity involves ‘engineering,’ ” according to the statement released. And the firm would help plan and supervised the event.

Texas A&M agreed Tuesday to pay $500,000, the limit a government body can pay in damages per event.The plaintiffs attorneys, however, were able to exceed that figure because their attorneys argued in court filings that the bonfire committee was not a government entity and because a Waco appeals court in May ruled that the individual Texas A&M administrators were not immune.

The court affirmed a lower court ruling that determined the college employees were able to be sued for their role in the bonfire, even though they were acting in their official capacity -- a legal definition that typically shields them from such lawsuits.

Attorneys for Texas A&M have previously argued that college administrators are protected under the state’s constitutional protections for government agencies and its employees.

Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kobs said successfully arguing that the administrators were not immune to a lawsuit in the bonfire collapse was key in reaching Tuesday’s settlement figure.

After the collapse, lawsuits were filed in various courts throughout Texas and later combined into one case in Brazos County .

Relatives of those killed and injured sued the university, contending that A&M officials created a dangerous event and were indifferent to the students’ safety.

The red pots settled a federal lawsuit out of court for about $5.85 million, which came from the homeowner policies of defendants’ parents.

Texas A&M also hinted Tuesday that it may study the prospect of a future bonfire by “beginning a dialogue with those impacted by the bonfire collapse” and a review of its history.

“It is our hope that it will help provide some closure to the tragic event for these individuals including the Aggie family and certainly including those injured,” Texas A&M President Elsa Murano said in a statement released by the university.

Jill Powell showed those in the courtroom a picture of her first granddaughter. She said it is bitter-sweet when she thinks about her son, Chad Powell, who never had a chance to have his own children.

“The dreams I had for him as a mother, he will never accomplish: graduating from college, starting his own family,” she said. “When our granddaughter was born there were tears. Some were of joy and some were of sadness, because there is a loss that will never heal.”

Those who agreed to pay:

  • Texas A&M agreed to pay $500,000 -- the limit a government agency can pay in damages.
  • The remaining settlement of $1.6 million was paid by:

  • Twelve university officials -- including former President Ray Bowen, and bonfire advisor Russell Thompson - were paid through individual insurance policies through Mid-Continent Casualty Co. and a policy through Savers Property and Casualty Insurance. The Mid-Continent policy already paid $125,000 to settle with other defendants not involved in the lawsuit settled Tuesday.
  • Mid-Continent, also the insurer for the Texas A&M Bonfire Committee, agree to pay a portion of the settlement to cover the committee. Plaintiff’s attorneys argued that the committee was an unincorporated association of individuals that included the “red pots,” or student leaders of the bonfire construction. The committee’s insurance policy was intended to provide coverage of the bonfire when it was burned.
  • Those who received money:

  • Jerry Don Self, 20, of Arlington, who was killed.
  • Chad A. Powell, 19, of Keller, who was killed.
  • Bryan Allan McClain, [ ? ], of San Antonio, who was killed.
  • Christopher Lee Heard, [ ?age], of Houston, who was killed.
  • John Comstock, of Dallas, whose left leg were severed and who has partial paralysis on his right side.
  • Dominic Braus, 27, of Waco, who had his right bicep severed.
  • Matthew Robbins, of Austin, who was injured.
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