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Massachusetts weighs criminal charges in Big Dig collapse

Such a move would set a new legal precedent and might encourage other prosecutors to bring similar charges in structural failures.

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Boston's Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in US history, has had its share of woes – from highly publicized leaks to a fatal ceiling collapse that has spawned a civil suit. Now, Massachusetts' attorney general is mulling whether to press criminal charges against the state authority that oversaw the project and some of the contractors.

That possibility has the nation's contracting industry watching closely – and with good reason. Criminal charges against contractors for the failure of a structure they designed or built would be unprecedented. A conviction could embolden other attorneys general to file criminal charges when construction accidents prove fatal.

"A conviction of a Big Dig contractor like Bechtel would be a landmark precedent in the criminal law precisely because such convictions are thought to be impossible to obtain," says Jim Harrington, a partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller, & Ciresi, a Boston law firm whose practice includes corporate criminal and negligence cases. "Charges and a conviction of the design and install contractors here would send a chill wind through the construction industry."

It's not clear that Attorney General Martha Coakley will file criminal charges.

A year ago, Milena Del Valle was killed when 26 tons of concrete ceiling panels came loose and crushed the car in which she was a passenger. (Her husband, the driver, escaped with minor injuries.) A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation concluded that the panels were secured by an inappropriate anchor adhesive. Ms. Del Valle's family filed a civil suit against several Big Dig contractors and the Massachusetts Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversaw the Big Dig. That suit is pending. Civil suits in cases where structural failures result in injury or death are common, legal experts say.

Criminal charges are not. Although prosecutors have considered them in other fatal structural failures, they've never pursued them, these experts say.

In 1981, for example, walkways in a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., collapsed due to faulty design, killing 114. Although $3 billion worth of claims were filed in civil court and two of the engineers involved lost their licenses, no criminal charges were filed.

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