Thursday, November 13, 2003

Murray State settles suit over '98 death of student

The Associated Press

MURRAY, Ky. - The mother of a Murray State University student killed in a 1998 dormitory fire has settled her lawsuit against the school, the last of three lawsuits she filed over his death.

The case was to go to trial Wednesday, but Calloway County Circuit Judge Dennis Foust said he was informed just before midday Tuesday that an agreement had been reached.

Terms of the settlement were not announced, and Foust said he didn't know whether he would require the parties to disclose them.

Michael Minger, a Niceville, Fla., sophomore studying music, died of smoke inhalation on Sept. 18, 1998, as he tried to flee the dense smoke and flames from what police said was an arson fire on the fourth floor of Hester Hall.

Tyler Thompson, a Louisville attorney representing Minger's estate, said damages were based on an economist's calculation of Minger's earning power, which was estimated at $4.2 million.

Minger's mother, Gail Minger, filed the wrongful-death lawsuit in 1999. She alleged that the university contributed to his death by not honoring a request to move him to alternate accommodations because of his disabilities, which included dyslexia and severe allergies.

Reached Tuesday afternoon by telephone, Minger said her lawyer advised her that Murray State's attorneys had requested that she not discuss the case for a period of time after the settlement is signed. How long was still being negotiated, she said.

"It was not what I wanted. ... I wanted to be able to speak the truth," Minger said of the settlement.

Murray State President F. King Alexander referred calls to university general counsel John Rall, who did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"I ache still from missing Michael these five years," Gail Minger said. "He was a son any mother and father would be proud of, even with his difficulties. Those are the children you love the most."

The settlement came a week after Foust issued an order that allowed Minger to seek punitive damages and denied Murray State's motion to dismiss the case.

Since the fire, Gail Minger has filed three lawsuits.

A federal judge in 2000 dismissed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of ceiling, carpeting and wall material in the dorm.

A federal lawsuit against David Wilson, who was the university's associate housing director at the time of the fire, was settled in June for $800. The settlement called for $200 to go to the Michael Minger Memorial Fund and $600 to the Murray Fire Department over five years.

Gail Minger also waged a legislative campaign that resulted in passage of the Michael Minger Act, which requires higher-education institutions in Kentucky to maintain and publish a detailed record of campus crimes, gives the state fire marshal's office complete jurisdiction over inspection of campus buildings and requires colleges to report all fires to the agency. She also has lobbied for a state requirement that sprinklers be installed in all college dorms.

The Council on Postsecondary Education and state university presidents developed a plan after the Murray State fire to install sprinklers in dorm rooms at a cost estimated at $25 million, and most of that work has been completed.

No one was convicted of setting the fire or a smaller fire five days earlier on the same floor of the dorm. Police have said the fatal fire was set by someone who doused the fourth-floor carpet with gasoline, possibly as a prank.

In 2001, a judge declared a mistrial in the murder-and-arson case against Jerry Wayne Walker, a former Murray State student who had lived on the floor where the fire occurred. The jury had deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal. Authorities dismissed the charges against Walker but said the case could be reopened.

Following a state police examination of university phone records immediately after the fire, several members of an off-campus rugby club and their friends were arrested and indicted on charges of either starting the fire or turning in a false alarm. The charges later were dropped.

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