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Survivors of North Carolina Jail Fire Settle for $1.94 Million

On January 9, 2003, Mitchell County (NC) Superior Court Judge Marlene Hyatt approved a settlement in which the families of the eight fatalities and the nine survivors of the May 3, 2002, Mitchell County Jail fire will split $1.94 million. $60,000 had already been paid as funeral expenses for the eight victims. The settlement provides for the immediate payment of $50,000, minus fees, to each survivor and each family of a fatality. Another $4,013 will be reimbursed to a law firm that paid an expert to inspect the jail after the fire. The remaining $1.09 million will be divided among the plaintiffs by an arbitration panel.

The $1.94 million is close to the maximum the plaintiffs could have received under state law. It is also the maximum allowed by the county's insurance coverage. As a part of the settlement, the county admitted no guilt and the plaintiffs relinquished the right to sue the county or its employees.

Scott MacLatchie, the attorney for the county, said that fighting the claim would have resulted in huge legal expenses. "It was a wise business and economic decision, and somewhat of a moral decision," said MacLatchie.

The fire started when cardboard boxeswhich were piled up against an electric space heater in a wood frame storage shed which had been added on to the back of the jail in 1965ignited sending a plume of smoke and hot gasses throughout the jail's cellblocks. This was reported in the January 2003 PLN.

A state Labor Department report released in November 2002 said state and county inspectors had failed to detect "serious safety deficiencies." This included the storage room having been built without a firewall and with a combustible door, roof, and shingles. The report also noted that the Department of Health and Human Services failed to note the safety violations in its twice annual inspections.

Fire survivor Johnny Robinson and several families of fire victims plan to file claims with the North Carolina Industrial Commission (NCIC), which oversees claims against state employees. NCIC allows a maximum $500,000 payment per claim. Although the district attorney did not pursue criminal charges against anyone for the fire, he expressed himself as open minded should NCIC hearings turn up new evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

William Diggs, a Myrtle Beach attorney who represents the families of four survivors and one fatality, said he may pursue a federal civil rights action. "All seventeen of these people could do that in my opinion," said Diggs.

Mark Thomas, father of fatality Mark Haleen Thomas, said he had also discussed a federal lawsuit with his attorney, Ben Baker of Montgomery. He expressed a belief that wrongdoing was involved.

"I think them paying $2 million shows something's wrong here," said Thomas. "The families want to know the truth. If people have done wrong, they should pay for what they have done."

Sources: Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News Observer, AP

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