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Legal news from Monday, August 23, 2010




Engineering firm reaches settlement over Minneapolis bridge collapse
Matt Glenn on August 23, 2010 2:51 PM ET

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[JURIST] Engineering firm URS Corporation [corporate website] agreed Monday to a $54.2 million settlement [RKMC press release; URS press release] stemming from the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse [MPR backgrounder] that killed 13 people. Victims sued URS for negligence, claiming that the company, which has a contract to inspect Minnesota's bridges, should have foreseen that the bridge could collapse due to increased weight from construction projects. Under the agreement, URS's insurer will pay $48.6 million [Minneapolis Star Tribune report] to victims injured in the collapse, $2.268 million to insurance companies that covered property damage and workers compensation claims, and $1.5 million towards a memorial for victims of the collapse. URS did not admit liability in its press release, noting that the company was not involved in the design, construction or renovation of the bridge. The company stated, "URS believes it is in the best interest of the Company and its shareholders to resolve this matter and avoid the cost and distraction of protracted litigation."

URS agreed to the settlement before a judge could rule on whether URS could be held liable for punitive damages as plaintiffs argued last month [MPR report], since, plaintiffs claimed, URS knew that the bridge could collapse. In March, URS reached a $5 million settlement [MPR report] with the state of Minnesota. In 2009, URS claimed that Minnesota was liable [MPR report] for the collapse and that the state had denied its advice to repair the bridge. The state sued URS [MPR report] for negligence and breach of contract in July 2009.




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Independent $20 billion oil spill victim fund begins processing claims
Ann Riley on August 23, 2010 1:24 PM ET

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[JURIST] The administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) [official website] announced Monday that the GCCF is in service and will begin processing claims [press release] from the $20 billion fund established by British Petroleum (BP) [corporate website] to aid victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] in the Gulf of Mexico. The GCCF, an independent facility, was implemented in June to manage claims from the fund after negotiations [JURIST report] between BP and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website]. BP announced last week that it paid out $368 million in claims [press release] before transferring responsibility to the GCCF. All current claims filed with the BP Claims Process [official website] have been transferred to the GCCF for review, but, in order to receive payments, claimants will be required to file new forms with the GCCF. The GCCF administrator, Kenneth Feinberg [WP profile], appointed earlier this month by the White House to manage claims from the fund, stressed the speed with which the GCCF would begin processing claims:
I want to make sure the people in the Gulf understand we will not let you go out of business or lose your home. The number one priority of the GCCF is to assist the people in the Gulf. Now that the claim centers are open and ready for business, the goal will be to get the emergency six month payment checks out the door, within 48 hours for individuals, after receipt of the claim form and sufficient supporting documentation and no more than seven days for businesses, after receipt of claim form and supporting documentation, and help people on the path to rebuilding their lives.
BP also appointed two trustees to administer the fund, former US district judge for the Southern District of New York John Martin and Washington University Law School dean Kent Syverud [official profile].

Numerous lawsuits are pending against BP in connection with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Earlier this month, Alabama Attorney General Troy King [official website] filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] against BP for damages to the state's coast and economy, claiming that the oil giant has failed in its efforts to accept responsibility for the oil spill. In July, a class-action lawsuit [complaint, PDF; JURIST report] was filed against the company in a Louisiana state court alleging that its negligent actions led to the spill and that BP was further negligent in its oversight of the cleanup effort, resulting in volunteers falling ill due to inadequate protective equipment. In June, two lawsuits were filed against BP [JURIST report] alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) [18 USC § 1961 et seq.] statute. The lawsuits allege that BP purposefully defrauded the American public in order to increase company profits. Also in June, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] announced that the DOJ is reviewing whether any civil or criminal laws were violated [JURIST report] by BP resulting in the oil spill. Holder cited several statutes being examined by government lawyers, including the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 [materials].




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China considering reducing death penalty crimes
Carrie Schimizzi on August 23, 2010 10:37 AM ET

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[JURIST] A proposed amendment to China's criminal law that would reduce the number of crimes punishable by death [Xinhua report] was presented Monday to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) [official website, in Chinese]. The current criminal code in China outlines 68 criminal offenses that carry the death penalty. If adopted, the proposed legislation would eliminate death sentences for 13 non-violent economic crimes, including smuggling and fraud-related activities, and would be the first time the number of crimes carrying the death penalty has been reduced since the enactment of China's criminal law in 1979. The amendment also proposes expanding capital punishment exceptions to criminals over the age of 75. Previously, only pregnant women and criminal offenders under the age of 18 were exempt from the death penalty. The proposed legislation is the latest move by the Chinese government to reduce the number of death sentences ordered by the country's courts.

Earlier this year, the Supreme People's Court of China [official website, in Chinese] issued new guidelines for limiting capital punishment [JURIST report] in Chinese courts. The guidelines instruct courts to issue the death penalty only to those who commit "extremely serious" crimes. However, the guidelines also state that reprieves should be issued in certain cases as allowed by law. The consistent use of the death penalty in China has been met with significant criticism from anti-death penalty advocates. Anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain [advocacy website] has said that China, Iran and Iraq account for more death penalties [advocacy report] than any other country. According to the group, in 2009, China executed about 5,000 people, or 88 percent of the world's total.




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Iran judicial officials suspended over detained protester deaths
Carrie Schimizzi on August 23, 2010 9:30 AM ET

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[JURIST] A military court in Iran has ordered the suspension of three top judiciary officials in connection with last year's torture deaths of three detained protesters, the Mehr News Agency [official website, in Persian] reported Monday. The three victims, Mohammad Kamrani, Amir Javadi-far and Mohsen Ruholamini, were tortured and beaten to death at the Kahrizak detention center after being arrested during anti-government protests that followed last year's disputed presidential election [JURIST news archive]. According to an anonymous source, three unidentified officials at the Tehran prosecutor's office have been suspended and stripped of their judicial immunity after a lengthy investigation into the case. The move clears the way for the three officials to face trial.

A previous Iranian parliamentary inquiry had determined Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi was responsible [JURIST report] for the deaths, but he has yet to be formally charged with any crime. In June of this year, an Iranian military court sentenced two men to death [JURIST report] by hanging for the killings. Nine others were sentenced to prison terms, and one suspect was acquitted. The defendants, whose trial began [JURIST report] in March, included of 11 policemen and one civilian. Observers have accused the Iranian government of conducting the trial as a mere political move.




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