Settlement reached in Big Dig death

Email|Print| Text size + By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / December 24, 2007

After weeks of confidential negotiations, Powers Fasteners has reached a $6 million settlement with the family of a Jamaica Plain woman who was killed in last year's ceiling collapse in a Big Dig tunnel, family representatives and company officials announced last night.

"We are grateful that the Powers family company has done the right thing," said the victim's daughter, Raquel Ibarra Morra, and widower, Angel Del Valle, in a joint statement. Milena Del Valle, 38, died July 10, 2006, when concrete tiles from the Interstate 90 connector tunnel ceiling crushed the car she and her husband were in on the way to Logan International Airport.

"We hope that [Big Dig project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff] and the other companies now show the same strength of character."

Powers is the first of 15 defendants to settle claims in the multimillion dollar lawsuit brought by the woman's family. According to a statement issued by the Del Valle family, lawyers for Powers Fasteners offered the family $6 million to resolve the case.

A statement from the company's president, Jeffrey Powers, denied responsibility for the death but said Powers hoped the settlement would "allow the healing process to begin."

"We also hope that this will lead others who, unlike Powers, truly were responsible for the accident, to do the same," the statement said.

Other defendants include Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, contractor Modern Continental, designer Gannett Fleming, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

Lawyers involved in the case have speculated that the Powers company's willingness to compensate Del Valle's husband and three children could help the company fight a manslaughter charge brought by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The charge, which Powers has been fighting, is pending in Suffolk Superior Court.

On Dec. 18, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Patrick F. Brady refused to dismiss the manslaughter charge against the company, which is based in Brewster, N.Y. Brady rejected the company's contentions that the attorney general's office should not be able to prosecute the case because it has filed a civil lawsuit against Powers and other companies seeking millions of dollars in damages.

The company's lawyers filed a motion last summer to dismiss the criminal case, saying that Coakley faced a conflict of interest.

"She is overlooking certain evidence that would exonerate Powers in the criminal matter because it's helpful to her in the civil case she is pursuing on behalf of the Commonwealth," Powers company spokeswoman Karen Schwartzman said then.

Emily LaGrassa, Coakley's spokeswoman, said a judge denied the motion. She said she would not comment further on the matter because it is a pending criminal case.

Max Stern, a lawyer representing Powers, said after the ruling that he thought it was wrongly decided and suggested that Powers would be vindicated at trial. Stern could not be reached for comment last night.

Federal investigators found that workers had used the wrong epoxy in constructing the ceiling.

Powers, which was indicted in August, is accused of failing to adequately warn construction contractors of the dangers of using a fast-drying epoxy to secure ceiling bolts.

Besides the death of Del Valle, the $15 billion project has been plagued by cost overruns, delays, and leaks. Last week, in a rare move, A US District Court judge sentenced a Big Dig contractor to 15 months in federal prison for his role in a scheme to defraud the government of more than $80,000.

The Del Valles' settlement was first reported last night on WBZ-TV, prompting Powers officials to issue their statement before they planned.

Bradley M. Henry, cocounsel for Del Valle's children, said by phone that the Del Valle family appreciated the way Powers company officials created a Mass card bearing a prayer in honor of Milena Del Valle, saying, "That kind of thing has meaning and shows character."

He rejected the idea that the settlement was a strategy that could lessen the impact of the criminal case, adding that there is "more than enough responsibility to go around" in the case.

"One thing that has become clear is a great many people knew about the problems in that tunnel," he said. "Powers was far from alone in the knowledge that it had."

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