State, Contractors Settle Suit Over Big Dig Failures
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A group of companies that designed and managed Boston's Big Dig highway project have agreed to a $450 million settlement. State and federal authorities sued Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and a few smaller firms after the ceiling in a tunnel collapsed. That 2006 accident killed a passing motorist.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: Besides being overdue and over budget, the $15 billion Big Dig has been plagued with problems from relentless water leaks to the $26 tons of concrete that fell from the tunnel ceiling and fatally crushed Milena Del Valle, a Boston mother of two. U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan blames the Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff consortium that was hired to oversee design and construction of the Big Dig.
Mr. MICHAEL SULLIVAN (U.S. Attorney, Massachusetts): The citizens of Massachusetts entrusted Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff to act as the eyes and ears on the Central Artery Project. They grossly failed to meet their obligation and responsibilities.
SMITH: Authorities say they have enough evidence to indict the firms on manslaughter, but penalties for corporations in Massachusetts are just $1,000. So the state is not pressing criminal charges. Attorney General Martha Coakley called the settlement imperfect, but the best possible deal for the state.
Ms. MARTHA COAKLEY (U.S. Attorney General, Massachusetts): We can't send corporations to jail. The only thing they understand as an entity is how much is it going to cost me and what is the behavior I have to change?
SMITH: Coakley says Bechtel has agreed to reforms from better training to tougher standards that would address what she called sloppy work from the design phase through construction and inspection.
Ms. COAKLEY: There was cutting of corners, there was failure to follow up, there was lack of oversight. I think there was desire to move along and get it done.
SMITH: The deal also leaves Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff on the hook for any future catastrophes. The company declined to comment beyond a prepared statement from Chairman John McDonald.
Mr. JOHN MCDONALD (Chairman, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff): We understand and acknowledge with this resolution that our performance did not meet our commitment to the public or our own expectations. Above all, we deeply regret the tragic death of Milena Del Valle in the I-90 tunnel.
SMITH: The firm is still facing a civil suit from Del Valle's family. Those lawyers were deposing a Bechtel engineer today as the government settlement was being announced.
Mr. BRAD HENRY (Milena Del Valle's Attorney): In some ways, it's like the elephant in the room.
SMITH: Del Valle's attorney Brad Henry says Bechtel settlement with the state will make it harder for the firm to claim it's not liable for civil damages.
Mr. HENRY: It's a genuinely odd position to be in where a company is prepared to pay hundreds of millions of dollars essentially for the broken property and yet is less willing to step forward and do the right thing for the woman who is killed as a result of their misconduct.
SMITH: Of the dozen or so companies sued by the Del Valle family, only one has settled with them so far. The family got $6 million from Powers Fasteners, who supplied the epoxy and bolt systems that failed to hold up the tunnel ceiling. Powers is also still facing criminal charges.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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