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.
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.
Before the Lilydale case, the most the city had paid out was $690,000 in an employment dispute.
At the low end of the top seven payments, the city paid $249,000 in an excessive force case where a civilian said that police beat him with flashlights and sprayed him with a chemical irritant.
The city’s highest payouts include a $400,000 wrongful death case in which St. Paul police fatally shot a man in 2001 after he wrestled a gun away from a carjacker, which is equal to the payouts awarded to the families of the two children killed in the landslide.
Minnesota law caps the amount that plaintiffs can recover from municipalities at $1.5 million, just $500,000 more than the Lilydale settlement. Plaintiffs who suffer damages in a singular event like the landslide cannot sue individually for the maximum payout, said David Prince, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law who specializes in tort law.
“I don’t think it’s unusually high,” Prince said of the settlement. “They probably came out as well as they could.”
Prince said that the city probably considered the likelihood of winning the case at trial, the costs of litigation and hiring experts to testify, and the best interests of the families.
“Trying to put a value in terms of dollars on any human life is a strange undertaking, really,” he said. “This is a reflection that the city thought its liability potential was probably pretty high.”
Mohamed Bah, one of Mohamed Fofana’s uncles and the president of the Guinea Association/Community of Minnesota, said the family is just trying to move forward.
“What else can we do? We can’t keep fighting. … We don’t want to scratch old wounds,” he said.
Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report