Texas A & M finally settles on the cheap for bonfire deaths and injuries
Many of us remember the disaster that occurred in 1999, when an enormous bonfire being prepared for a Texas A & M vs. Texas football game rally at Texas A & M collapsed and killed 12 young people and injured 27. The 59 foot tall bonfire was built by students using heavy equipment on university property, but unsupervised by the university or anyone with a professional engineering background. The university initially suspended the traditional bonfire for two years, before banning it permanently after a scathing report that blamed flawed construction techniques, inadequate supervision and cultural bias in causing the tragedy. Nine years later, A & M finally acknowledged fault and paid compensation to the victims for the first time, after claiming immunity from its own negligence, resulting from its governmental status. The settlement paid by A & M, after all this delay, was only 2.1 million dollars. I guess everything is bigger in Texas except the value of twelve lives.
Texas, as has many states, adopted a broad form of "governmental immunity" protecting the government and government actors from suit by victims of the actors' negligence. It is an odd historical circumstance that our democracy accepted, along with the English Common Law, a historical ban by the English sovereign: having created the courts, historically the English King would not allow them to be utilized by a litigant who wanted to address a grievance against the king. I guess that makes sense if you own the courts, but the policy that the government acting on our behalf should not fairly compensate a victim of its own ineptitude (i.e., that the victim should bear all of the cost of actions benefitting all of us) seems inconsistent with good public policy, modern sensibilities and rational-governmental decision-making. If risk-sharing is every justified in the context of injury or death, it should be most readily applied to governmental errors occurring in activities undertaken for the common good.
It should be a source of shame to the state of Texas, and to Texas A & M, that the families of these young students, engaged in a sanctioned and supported but inadequately planned activity, should be deprived fair compensation for administrative stupidity. Before the rest of us come down too hard on A & M, however, we should take a good look at what activist judges have done in our own neighborhood to expand governmental immunity: Michigan's Cliff Taylor and his slim majority on the Michigan Supreme Court recently held that death isn't a "bodily injury" under Michigan's immunity statute: as a result, the only difference in outcome in Michigan would be that it wouldn't take nine years for the families to be denied any compensation.
Oh, by the way, the bonfire is planned for November 22, this year and will be 45 feet high. The University says it will be supervised by a licensed engineer and constructed on private property.