It's been nearly seven years since Texas A&M University's bonfire disaster, and a resolution to the mammoth lawsuit filed by dozens of victims and their families likely won't come anytime soon.
Trial dates for the case, which started out with 64 defendants and now involves more than 200 potential witnesses, have twice come and gone. Attorneys on both sides are waiting for the 10th Court of Appeals to review certain matters before a new trial date can be considered.
At A&M's request, the appeals court is reviewing pre-trial decisions made by local District Judge Steve Smith concerning jurisdiction of the lawsuit and how much immunity the university has. Briefs for the matter are due with the court later this month. A date for oral arguments has not yet been set.
Twelve Aggies were killed and 27 others injured as a result of the November 1999 collapse, which occurred as students were trying to complete the five-tiered log structure. The 6,000 to 7,000 logs used in building bonfire - an annual tradition prior to each year's football game against University of Texas that had seen immense growth since its inception - weighed more than eight Boeing 747 jumbo jets, according to court documents.
Bonfire victims and their families began filing suit in March 2001, when Fort Worth-based attorney Darrell Keith filed on behalf of Jacki Self, the mother of deceased student Jerry Don Self. Eventually, about a dozen plaintiffs - many of whom also were represented by Keith - joined in. Although originally filed separately, the cases were consolidated and put under Smith's jurisdiction in Brazos County.
Of the 64 defendants who originally were included in the joint suit, 36 have settled with payments through their insurance companies. The group represents all of the red pots - student leaders who had been assigned to supervise Bonfire construction.
The remaining 28 defendants include the university, its officials - ranging from former President Ray Bowen to Bill Kibler, former associate vice president for student affairs - and a crane operation company that helped construct the stack.
"It's a massive case," Keith said Friday, noting that he's not surprised by the delays. "It's a very complicated case, and we expected it would be rather drawn out. But we're very pleased at the progress we've made up to this point in time."
Meanwhile, the remaining participants in the case have been ordered to undergo mediation - a process that has been taking place for years. Keith declined to discuss the mediation process Friday, saying he's not allowed to do so.
University officials and their legal counsel have repeatedly declined to comment on the litigation.
A separate lawsuit has been filed in federal court by many of the same plaintiffs. Although it has twice been dismissed, attorneys have been waiting for about a year for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a decision on the latest appeal.
In that suit, the plaintiffs have argued that university officials broke federal law by creating a danger through their indifference in preventing the collapse. A lower federal court in Galveston stated in May 2004 that there was evidence of a "state-created danger," but it ruled in the university's favor after concluding that the doctrine wasn't yet recognized by the court at the time of the collapse.
During oral arguments before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last September, attorneys for A&M argued again that no state-created danger existed. No one was forced to work on bonfire and officials did not have a deliberate indifference to the students' well-being, said Ted Cruz, Texas' solicitor general.
"Not only was it voluntary - the students were enthusiastic," he argued at the time, according to Associated Press reports.
No indication has been given as to when the next decision will be issued.
• Craig Kapitan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.