Gillespie Community Unit School District 7 has accepted a proposed $4 million settlement from Union Pacific in connection to the 2009 mine subsidence loss of the Benld Elementary School. The settlement acceptance marks an end to the lawsuit filed eight years ago in August 2009 by the school district against Union Pacific after the subsidence condemned the school in spring 2009.
In September 2014, the Circuit Court of Macoupin County awarded CUSD 7 $9.85 million based on the damages incurred by the loss of the elementary school that was only seven years old, but Supt. Tieman announced in November 2015 the 2014 ruling was reversed and was remanded to Macoupin County Circuit Court for further hearing. The unexpected settlement offer was proposed to school board members Wednesday evening, August 16, while meeting in special session and the resolution, motioned by Board Member Weye Schmidt, was approved by the school board with a dissenting vote from School Board Member Dennis Tiburzi.
Voting in favor of the settlement resolution included Board President Mark Hayes and board members Schmidt, Don Dobrino, Jenni Alepra, Billy Carter and Peyton Bernot. Although Tiburzi did not announce a reason for his dissent, it’s presumed he is unfamiliar with most of the development that has taken place over the 8-year litigation after recently being elected to the school board in April 2017. He also did not receive status updates as litigation transpired as other board members received while they were serving.
Superintendent Joe Tieman said the settlement provides an “exchange of dismissal of prejudice of all claims pending”, meaning the school district cannot appeal or refile the case. In the short open session on Wednesday, Supt. Tieman said the school board felt the settlement acceptance was in the best interest of the school district and citizens of the school district. He continued by thanking all board members who served during the litigation; former Supt. Paul Skeans, who he called the “mover and shaker”, for playing a “major role in the settlement and construction of the new Ben-Gil Elementary School”; and the Verticchio & Verticchio Law Offices representing the district, specifically Rick and Tom.
“Our two attorneys, Rick and Tom Verticchio, have invested a big part of their lives over the last eight years putting in thousands of hours,” Supt. Tieman told The BenGil Post. “They worked mainly behind the scenes and kept [the school district] updated and I have no doubt they worked extra hard for their home town. I could not be more proud of them and their staff.”
The $4 million settlement is one of the biggest victories in Macoupin County and $4 million is a substantial amount of money.
Supt. Tieman also made note of the expenses that need to be paid out of the $4 million settlement including attorney fees, which are 25 percent of the settlement, and a $367,000 payment to the Illinois Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund. Tieman announced there have not been any decisions made regarding the fate of the settlement monies, but he noted there are always many possibilities.
Rick Verticchio told The BenGil Post on Thursday that he and his brother are very happy and proud of the work they did for Gillespie CUSD 7 saying they were fighting “corporate America” and it was a successful litigation despite being settled out of court. He said the first settlement offer from Union Pacific was $500,000 and later discussions increased to the neighborhood of $2 million as litigation continued although $2 million was never formally proposed. “We never had serious negotiations because of the low nature of the offers.”
“We recommended acceptance of [Union Pacific’s] offer based on a number of things including being confronted with another appeal could have meant another two years of litigation as litigation is very slow,” Verticchio added. “We also recognized the $4 million settlement is one of the biggest victories in Macoupin County and $4 million is a substantial amount of money that we knew would help the district, especially at this time when the financial situation in Illinois toward school districts is uncertain.”
Verticchio said one of the major feats in the litigation that occurred in 2015 despite the major setback of the reverse ruling was that the courts sided with Verticchio & Verticchio on removing the assumption of risk from subsidence cases. He said insurance companies and corporate American shift the burden to the people with statements such as, “you knew the area where you built was mined over”, but that defense, according to Verticchio, is no longer justified and that was a big obstacle conquered – not only for Gillespie CUSD 7, but for the citizens of the state of Illinois.
“I’m glad it’s over for the district and our home town,” Verticchio concluded as he expressed praise of his brother, Tom.
The condemned Benld Elementary School started being demolished in 2013 but was halted for more than 10 months for further testing. Demolition was completed in 2014 after the building was released by the court although the district kept ownership of the property since it was the subject of the lawsuit. Supt. Tieman told The BenGil Post the discussion what to do with the district owned property in Benld will take place in upcoming months.