St. Paul to settle for $1 million with families of landslide victims

The St. Paul City Council is expected to approve next week the settlement over the accident at Lilydale Park.

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Haysem Sani (left) and Mohammed Fofana

The families of three grade-school students killed or injured last year in a landslide at a St. Paul park will receive a total of $1 million in the largest settlement ever paid out by the city of St. Paul.

The settlement agreement, expected to be approved next week by the City Council, promises the money “in full and final settlement of potential civil litigation for all claims” in the tragic accident at Lilydale Regional Park, which took the lives of Mohamed Fofana, 10, and Haysem Sani, 9, and seriously injured their classmate Devin Meldahl.

The three boys, all fourth-graders at Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park, fell when a waterlogged cliff in the park collapsed as their class was engaged in a fossil hunt. Lucas Lee, another child who was injured, was not a party to the settlement.

Under the terms, the families of Haysem and Mohamed each will receive $400,000, and Devin’s family will receive $200,000. By agreeing to the settlement, the city is not admitting liability but “intends merely to avoid litigation and buy its peace.”

‘Both sides … feel pretty good’

Two independent investigations commissioned by the city in the wake of the May 22 accident concluded that the city couldn’t have predicted or prevented the landslide. The studies found that St. Paul staffers were aware of soil erosion in the park but thought it a threat to the environment rather than to visitors.

Attorney John Goetz, who represented the families, told the Star Tribune last fall that it “was pretty incredible” to say that city staffers didn’t know about the landslide risk.

St. Paul was never sued in connection with the landslide, but a notice filed by attorneys indicated that civil action was inevitable.

“It’s been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all the parties,” said City Attorney Sara Grewing, who added that she could not comment further because of the settlement’s terms and conditions.

City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the area where the landslide occurred, said the settlement was “little consolation, but I’m glad we can help the families to mend their lives.”

Mohamed Fofana’s mother declined to comment Thursday, as did Haysem Sani’s mother. “Can’t answer that question right now,” she said when asked how she felt.

The settlement is contained in a resolution on the City Council’s consent agenda for its weekly meeting Wednesday.

Paul Godlewski, who works with Goetz, said Thursday that the attorneys walked the fossil site with city officials last summer. Both sides met this year to settle the case in a long and tearful mediation session.

“Both sides … feel pretty good about the settlement,” Godlewski said.

Goetz said that attorneys are now in talks with the school district’s attorneys, hoping to resolve any claims without litigation.

Meanwhile, the fossil grounds in the park remain closed and plans for its future have not been finalized, said Brad Meyer, spokesman for the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department.

Significant payout

While the $1 million settlement is the largest total sum the city has paid out, the individual payments to the three families also rank among or near the city’s top seven payouts.

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