NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans judge has brought in a mediator to try to work out a settlement with hundreds of people who claim damage from collapse of part of a hotel under construction nearly three years ago.
Plaintiffs say they were injured, a loved one killed, or their business damaged when upper stories of a planned Hard Rock Hotel collapsed on Oct. 12, 2019. The crash killed three workers, injured many others, damaged nearby property, and shut down part of six-lane Canal Street for more than a year. It was 10 months before all bodies were removed and 18 months before two-way traffic ran on Canal Street.
There’s been little movement in the cases for about two years, and Civil District Judge Kern Reese has appointed John Perry Jr., of Baton Rouge, as special master to work out a settlement, WWL-TV reported.
“For our clients, it’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mike Brandner Jr., who represents more than 40 injured construction workers.
Perry will negotiate with a committee of 13 plaintiffs’ attorneys and with the hotel’s developers and construction contractors.
“It may be easy to settle with some of the defendants and very difficult to settle with other of the defendants,” Perry told the station Friday. “And we’re just going to have to get into it in a traditional negotiation to make that determination.”
Perry has already worked out settlements in some cases, the station reported.
Paul Thibodeaux, who represents 1031 Canal Development, said it has worked with Perry “to resolve multiple claims and looks forward to continuing that effort.”
The Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office is investigating possible negligence charges but has not brought any. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued safety violations against the designer, prime contractor, and some subcontractors, but lead engineer James Heaslip is still appealing his case.
Perry sent a letter Thursday saying that if a settlement is approved, he will run a compensation program to distribute any money put up by the defendants’ insurance companies. He also asks plaintiffs’ attorneys to recommend that their clients participate in a compensation program, with a Sept. 28 deadline for attorneys' consent to do so.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to put a program in place that’s acceptable to all participants in the very near future,” Perry said. “And at that point, we’ll be in a position to try to negotiate the claims with the defendants.”
Agreement to participate in the process would avoid long litigation but would require accepting Perry's decision. His “determinations will be final,” said a consent form shared by Perry. “There will be no appeal to any court or any other authority.”
Claimants can opt out of any settlement and continue in court.
“But if they have to take 100 depositions and hire 25 experts and start getting trial dates and working their way through the traditional process, this will take years,” Perry said. “And we’re trying to get this plane landed and give everyone an opportunity to resolve these claims efficiently and quickly.”
Reese has ordered 4% of all claims payments to cover litigation costs, mostly storage of evidence recovered from the collapse site.