Details of the Columbia Disaster Settlement

After the space shuttle Columbia most tragically blew apart during reentry on February 1, 2003, NASA reached an out-of-court settlement with the families of the seven astronauts lost (Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown and Laurel Clark.)

This week, the
Orlando Sentinel has a report on details of that undisclosed settlement.

Notably, a Sentinel reporter's FOIA requests, submitted to NASA in 2005 and 2006, last month finally "yielded just seven pages of documents that leave many questions unanswered." (Indeed. A national disaster, seven dead astronauts, and just seven pages of the legal record made public with respect to the sums of money paid by the nation to the grieving families? What is that -- one page per hero? Hard to believe this paltry production satisfies the
federal law. And family privacy issues aside, what was NASA thinking in not sharing even this limited information before the freedom of information filing?)

What the documents did reveal was that NASA paid $26.6 million to the surviving families.

Former FBI director and federal judge William Webster (now a consulting partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy) served as "a mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements," the newspaper reported.

The FOIA documents included a NASA letter dated March 26, 2004 from then-general counsel Paul Pastorek who said NASA had "advised family members to retain lawyers and that early discussions had been 'positive and constructive.'"

The documents apparently did not set forth the names of counsel for the families.

Jon Clark, Laurel Clark's husband, who told the Sentinel he spent $200,000 on lawyers himself, said the settlements were on the "low side" of what the families sought. He did not specify how low. The documents did not reveal how the total settlement divided among the families.

Some quite interesting details, via the article:

- Parents, spouses and children of the fallen astronauts all received compensation.

- Astronauts with doctoral degrees received slightly more than those with master's degrees.

- Families with a larger number of children received less per child than smaller families.

- In 2004 Webster and his team met with the seven families and their attorneys, both collectively and individually.

- The families presented videos, computerized slide shows and economic projections for lost income.

- All agreed to receive the same award for the astronauts' pain and suffering.

- The families, of course, promised not to make any future legal claims against NASA or its contractors.

Compare this outcome to legal wrangling after prior fatal NASA missions, specifically, product liability lawsuits against government contractors. Widows of the deadly Apollo I fire reached settlements with the spacecraft’s manufacturer, North American Rockwell. And of course after the Challenger loss, families sued rocket manufacturer Morton Thiokol, settling for approximately $1 million each -- and yes, federal taxpayers ponied up for part of that.

For a more analysis of the Columbia acident legal issues, see this CRS report,
Liability Issues Associated with the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster, Feb. 12, 2003.

In the end, NASA appeared to have handled itself with grace vis-a-vis the grieving families. Jon Clark said the agency was "deferential." Lani McCool found NASA to be "extremely sensitive and so respectful."

I especially like this: Webster handled the matter pro bono and received a distinguished public-service medal from NASA. Bravo.

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