$75 million settlement in Hancock scaffolding collapse

Attorneys for the families of three women killed and seven others injured when outdoor scaffolding fell from the John Hancock Building four years ago announced Wednesday that they will accept $75 million to settle their claims against the building and the construction company.

The settlement, reached as a result of court ordered mediation, was approved by Cook County Circuit Judge William Maddux.

Melissa Cook, 29, and Jill Nelson, 27, were cousins and best friends who grew up in Merrillville, Ind. They were stopped at a traffic light next to the skyscraper on March 9, 2002, when a portion of the scaffolding fell from the 42nd floor and crushed their car.

The mothers of the two women were in the back seat and sustained injuries.

The third woman killed, Nanatta Cameron, 39, was in a separate car on Chestnut Avenue next to the North Michigan Avenue high-rise.

Another woman in a nearby car, Peggy Whittaker, whose age is unknown, died in 2005 as a result of the injuries she suffered that day from falling debris. She sustained spinal cord and brain damage.

The day of the accident, the National Weather Service had issued a warning of high winds. According to Robert Clifford, who represents seven victims, the building ignored complaints that the scaffolding was unstable.

At a news conference Wednesday, Clifford and attorney Thomas Demetrio presented animations and audio recordings that would have been shown in court had the case gone to trial. The trial was supposed to start Wednesday morning and was expected to last several weeks.

The lawsuit was filed against companies involved in the Hancock Building construction project. The project was almost a year behind schedule, Demetrio said, and safety concerns were overlooked because of cost and time issues. The lawyers also indicated that the number of safety inspections on the scaffolding had been reduced.

The lawsuit, filed March 13, 2002, claimed negligence and infliction of emotional distress against AMS Technologies, Beeche Systems, Shorenstein Realty Services, Eckland Consultants and several other companies. AMS Technologies, the general contractor for the repair project, and Beeche Systems, the scaffolding manufacturer, will be paying the largest portion of the settlement, $26 million each.

One piece of evidence was an audiotape of several of the companies' representatives downplaying safety concerns. Robert Tudor, from Eckland Consultants, and Tom Wichlinski, of Shorenstein Realty Services, are heard on the tape comparing the situation to the 1970s Ford Pinto lawsuit, in which the car manufacturer said it was easier to pay for lawsuits than fix a defective part.

"It's like building a Pinto," Wichlinski said.

"Put the gas tank in first and worry about it later," Tudor replied.

Clifford and Demetrio also said the scaffolding equipment weighed 10,000 tons, 3,000 tons more than the support system was designed to handle.

The lawyers said they had taken more than 130 depositions in preparation for the case. "There was a lot of finger-pointing among the defendants," Demetrio said.

He added that during the depositions, "it became clear that [the companies] were accountable."

Clifford said that safety improvements have come about "only because of a tragic loss of life."

The distribution of the settlement money will remain private, by request of the victims.