Judge seals proposed settlement of lawsuits in I-40 bridge collapse


Thursday, May 1st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) _ An Oklahoma City federal judge has sealed the details of a proposed settlement of lawsuits against two Mississippi companies over the deadly Interstate 40 bridge collapse.

The plaintiffs include the families of 14 people who died and those who survived when two empty barges crashed into the bridge's pier, causing it to collapse into the Arkansas River May 26.

Plaintiffs filed civil lawsuits in Muskogee federal court against Magnolia Marine Transport Co., the Mississippi-based owner of the towboat that was pushing the barges.

Parent company Ergon Inc. also was sued, as was towboat pilot William Joe Dedmon of Florence, Miss.

``Most, if not all, of the pieces involving deaths or injuries were settled for amounts that cannot be disclosed,'' said Oklahoma City attorney John Merritt, who filed the first civil lawsuit in the bridge collapse.

The settlements were reached recently.

Magnolia Marine cited a 19th-century maritime law in suing to limit its liability to about $1.2 million in the crash. Bridge survivors and victims' families later challenged the limitation lawsuit, which was moved to Muskogee.

Dedmon's Tulsa attorney, Joel Wohlgemuth, cited West's gag order in not confirming details of the proposed settlements.

``It's my view that it's entirely improper to make any comments,'' Wohlgemuth told the Tulsa World. ``From our standpoint, it's completely wrong and contrary to Judge West's order.

``At the conclusion of the settlement process, it's possible Judge West may modify his order.''

Muskogee attorney David Garrett, who represents injured victims Max and Goldie Alley, also would not confirm whether his clients had settled their claims against the towboat companies and pilot.

Garrett said all sides met recently with West at a mediation conference in Oklahoma City.

``Magnolia Marine, I believe, would like to have closure of this case because it's not good for business to constantly be in the press,'' Garrett said.

Garrett and Merritt said reaching settlements will keep the litigation from taking years to hear and possibly appeal.

``I'd say there wouldn't be a trial for a year on the issue of whether (Magnolia Marine) could limit its liability,'' Merritt said. ``The actual trials of death and injury cases wouldn't occur for 2 to 2 1/2 years.''

Merritt represents the relatives of a Lavaca, Ark., residents James and Misty Johnson and their 3-year-old daughter, Shea Nicole.

The state's $56 million lawsuit against Magnolia Marine Transport Co., Ergon Inc. and Dedmon is still pending, Assistant Attorney General Guy Hurst said.

A court-ordered settlement conference in the state's lawsuit is set for May 19. West also will mediate that conference.

``We're not talking settlement until then,'' Hurst said. ``We're always hopeful going into a settlement conference.''

The state is seeking $30 million for the cost of replacing the bridge and damage to overburdened state highways used as detours.

Dedmon's attorneys said the 62-year-old pilot suffered from heart problems and may have blacked out just before the empty barges struck the bridge.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the accident and has not released any reports on its findings.

A Texas construction company, Gilbert Central Corp., rebuilt the bridge in about two months at a cost of about $13 million.