SAN FRANCISCO — Anti-war activist S. Brian Willson and his lawyers say the federal government has tentatively agreed to pay $920,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after a Navy weapons train hit Willson and severed his legs during a 1987 protest.
William McGivern, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said a settlement proposal has been sent to Justice Department officials for approval, but that a court order prohibited him from saying anything further. A lawyer for three train crew members also named in the suit, however, issued a statement saying the railroad workers would pay no money under the tentative agreement and that "the settlement is being entirely paid by the . . . United States."
According to Willson and his lawyers, the proposed settlement is proof that the government acknowledges it was reckless in dealing with the protesters on Sept. 1, 1987. Some of the 40 protesters that day, including Willson, tried to block arms shipments by sitting on railroad tracks in the path of a train leaving the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
"It should send a message out that you can't use deadly force against peaceful protesters," said Tom Steel, Willson's attorney.
Willson, a former Air Force captain who served in the Vietnam War, said he would use the settlement money to help support his efforts to promote peace through speeches, demonstrations and civil disobedience.
"I consider it a bittersweet victory," said Willson, 49, who walks on artificial legs. "It's a fairly significant settlement, but the Concord Naval Weapons Station and other installations are still sending weapons to the Third World."
Government attorneys, however, stressed there is no final agreement yet.
"All we are allowed to say is that there is a settlement in process and it has been sent to the Department of Justice for approval," McGivern said.
But attorneys for Willson, his wife and three other protesters who sued the government said $920,000 would be paid in a single cash payment, with most of it going to Willson and his wife, Holley Rauen.
Thomas Meyer, Rauen's attorney, said the activists had asked for more than $3 million in the 1988 lawsuit, which claimed the federal government and train crew violated the protesters' civil rights and caused personal injuries. Willson was the only protester seriously injured.
Since the incident, anti-war protesters have maintained a 24-hour-a-day vigil at the weapons depot, which ships between 60,000 and 120,000 tons of munitions each year to U.S. forces and allies, a Navy spokesman said.
Willson's announcement of a tentative settlement comes one month before the case was due to be heard in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed a suit by three of the train crewmen, who blamed Willson for psychological damage and loss of wages they suffered after the incident.
U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham said Willson did not plan to cause the railroad workers any distress, because he assumed the train would stop before hitting him.
In July, 1989, the Navy decided not to suspend the train's crew, citing Willson's failure to get out of the way as a "mitigating factor." Walnut Creek attorney William Kolin, who represented the three crew members, said Wednesday that his clients "feel that Mr. Willson's injuries were brought about by his voluntary act of sitting on the railroad tracks in full view of the oncoming munitions train."
Willson and the protesters' lawyers have claimed that the train was going three times the 5 m.p.h. speed limit as it crossed a road cutting through the Navy base. Railroad operations manager Edward Hubbard and Navy base security officers knew the protesters were on the tracks, they said.
"It was a crime, you know. It wasn't an accident," said Willson, calling the incident an extension of U.S. policy in war-torn parts of Central America. "It was just a matter of bringing the war home a bit."