Austria: $21 Million Settlement Reached in Alpine Cable-Car Fire that Killed 155

June 18, 2008

Relatives of 155 people who died when fire raged through a crowded alpine cable car in 2000 will share $21.5 million in compensation, Austrian authorities announced.

The settlement ends more than seven years of legal wrangling that stemmed from Austria’s worst peacetime disaster. A total of 451 claimants will split the settlement.

Klaus Liebscher, governor of the Austrian Central Bank and chairman of a compensation commission, said the money would be paid out immediately.

The passengers died on Nov. 11, 2000, when a fire blamed on a faulty heater swept through the car packed with skiers and snowboarders. The blaze broke out as the car passed through a mountain tunnel on its way to the summit of Austria’s popular Kitzsteinhorn glacier near the ski resort of Kaprun.

Only 12 people escaped. Most of the victims were from Austria and Germany. Eight were Americans, and the others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Britain.

All 451 claimants signed the settlement on June 12, Liebscher said. He said the agreement stipulates that the relatives abandon any pending lawsuits seeking compensation.

The cash would be paid under a sliding scale, and amounts would differ depending on a claimant’s relation to the victim, Liebscher added.

There was no immediate reaction from victims’ groups, who had sought higher damages in class-action lawsuits filed in Austria and the U.S. In Europe, compensation in such cases is typically significantly lower than the multimillion-dollar sums sometimes awarded by U.S. courts.

But no sum could ever compensate families for the “infinite pain” of losing a loved one, Austrian Justice Minister Maria Berger said Tuesday.

“Nevertheless, it’s important that after years of discussions, we are able to give survivors a tangible sign of our sympathy and respect,” she said.

Austrian prosecutors charged 16 people with criminal negligence in the disaster, including employees of Gletscherbahnen Kaprun AG, which operated the cable car; employees of the company that manufactured the car; technicians, and two government officials.

In February 2004, a court acquitted all 16. Eight later were retried on appeal and again acquitted.

Relatives at one point sought to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, but that court refused to hear it.

Liebscher said 23 of 28 claimants from Japan sent a fax in recent days declaring their intent to withdraw from the agreement. However, he said Austria would consider it legally binding and the Japanese relatives would have no further recourse.

The Austrian government, Gletscherbahnen Kaprun AG and the Generali insurance company all paid into the compensation fund, officials said.

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