WASHINGTON — Families of four of the seven crew members killed in the Challenger explosion have settled with the government for total damages exceeding $750,000 for each family, with 60% of the sum to be provided by Morton Thiokol Inc., maker of the solid rocket boosters on the space shuttle, an Administration source said Monday.
Justice Department officials declined to disclose the settlement amounts on grounds that the families insisted on confidentiality and because of pending legal action involving other crew members' families.
The settlements will provide for payments over an extended period and "are designed to provide adequate financial security for the families of these crew members," the department announcement said.
Resolves All Claims
The agreement resolves all claims that the four families might have against the government, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, contractors, subcontractors and Morton Thiokol, a department spokesman said.
The minimum of $750,000 for each family came to light because the agreement was signed by Deputy Atty. Gen. Arnold Burns, who must approve civil agreements exceeding that amount.
Officials of Morton Thiokol, headquartered in Chicago, did not return calls about the agreement. But Burns said it does not free the company from any damages sought by the government or by families of the other three crew members. Government officials would not indicate whether a suit by the government is likely.
Failure of Seal
An investigation by a presidential commission concluded that the Jan. 28 explosion was caused by the failure of a seal in the shuttle's solid rocket booster. The malfunction allowed hot gases to burn into the hydrogen fuel tank, triggering the blast 73 seconds after launch.
The four families that settled are those of Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, 46, a former Air Force test pilot and the mission commander; Sharon Christa McAuliffe, 37, a New Hampshire high school teacher who was to have been the first teacher in space; Ellison S. Onizuka, 39, an Air Force lieutenant colonel and mission specialist, and Gregory B. Jarvis, 41, a former Air Force engineer assigned to the Challenger as a Hughes Aircraft Co. representative.
None had filed legal action in connection with the accident.
The families of two other astronauts aboard the Challenger--mission specialist Ronald E. McNair and pilot Michael J. Smith--have brought legal claims, and the department has held settlement discussions without result with the family of the other astronaut, mission specialist Judith A. Resnik, a department spokesman said.
William F. Maready, the attorney for Jane J. Smith, Smith's widow, said the settlement does not affect a $15.1-million wrongful death administrative claim he has lodged against NASA. "We have not reached any definitive point of negotiations with the Department of Justice or Morton Thiokol," Maready said.
Ronald D. Krist, a lawyer for McNair's widow, Cheryl, and her children, contended that they were being "discriminated against and punished" by being excluded from the settlement because they had sued Morton Thiokol, claiming the rocket maker was negligent. The suit, which does not specify the damage amount sought, is pending.
Commenting on Monday's settlement, Krist said: "I'm glad there finally has been some acknowledgement of responsibility by someone involved. Whether or not there has been full discharge of that acknowledged responsibility has to do with how much was paid."
No Admission of Liability
However, Amy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's civil division, said that in line with normal practice in out-of-court settlements, the agreement did not constitute any admission of negligence or liability by Morton Thiokol or the government.
She said the settlement resulted from an approach made to the government last summer by a friend of one of the four families, whom she refused to identify. The intermediary indicated that the four would be interested in reaching a settlement.
"The Department of Justice and the families are pleased that these settlements were achieved with concern for the dignity of all involved, and in a timely and non-adversarial manner without the need to engage in litigation," said Terry Eastland, the department's public affairs director.
Morton Thiokol's agreement to pay 60% of the amount to the families was spelled out in a separate settlement with the government, according to a Justice Department source. The department would not make public that settlement.
The settlement with the four families is not unprecedented, because the government has made payments to others injured in accidents involving government equipment, said Patrick S. Korten, a Justice Department spokesman.
In the 1967 launch pad fire in which three astronauts died aboard an Apollo spacecraft, the widow of the mission commander, Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, waited four years before filing a suit. She settled out of court with rocket builder North American Rockwell for $350,000, and the manufacturer also paid $150,000 each to the families of the two other crew members, even though they never sued.