A&M Settles Bonfire Lawsuit

Texas A&M University agreed Tuesday to pay $2.1 million to settle a lawsuit over the collapse of a bonfire tower that killed 12 people and injured dozens more nearly a decade ago.

The families of four students killed and several of those who were injured sued university administrators and construction contractors hired to help build the 59-foot-tall tower of logs that fell apart in November 1999.

After the collapse, the university prohibited students from building the bonfire on its property -- a tradition for the Texas A&M-Texas football game going back to 1909. Since then, the fire has been held off campus by students and alumni.

Under the settlement reached Tuesday in Brazos County court, the university agreed to pay $2.1 million to the victims and their families and to have engineering oversight if the university ever decides to allow future bonfires on campus. University spokesman Jason Cook said the university will pay $500,000, with the remaining money coming from its insurers.

"My clients are very satisfied with the settlement. It represents an important step in the case, which provides some measure of justice -- albeit inadequate -- and equally or more importantly, provides the commitment by A&M to bring about professional engineering oversight," said Darrell Keith, an attorney for two of the injured and four families of participants who were killed.

Students and alumni fiercely defend the long-standing tradition, and Keith said his clients don't oppose an on-campus bonfire.

"My clients believe the bonfire is a strong and great tradition at A&M and are hoping it can be restored, provided it's under professional engineering oversight," he said.

A&M President Elsa Murano, who took over earlier this year, said in a statement that no decision would be made on whether to allow the bonfire back on campus until she has discussed the collapse with those most affected by it and reviewed the event's history.

"It is our hope that today's announcement will help provide some closure to the tragic event for these individuals, as well as for the entire Aggie family, and certainly including those who were injured," she said.

The school had fought the lawsuit, claiming the administrators were immune from such suits, but a court of appeals allowed the lawsuit to continue, and the A&M Board of Regents authorized the settlement Monday.

Tuesday's settlement follows one in 2004 against student leaders who helped organize the bonfire, known as the "red pots," totaling about $6 million. Those claims were paid through the homeowner's insurance policies of their parents.

Claims against the construction firm that provided a crane and the crane operators are still pending; the university is a third-party defendant in those cases.

Keith said he expects the case against the remaining defendants to be set for trial next year.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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