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U. of U. settles lawsuit brought by Chinese scholars' families for $500,000

Published August 7, 2009 6:31 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The University of Utah has settled a lawsuit brought by the families of seven Chinese scholars killed in a 2003 van rollover, cutting short a two-week trial in a Salt Lake City courtroom.

State officials agreed to pay the plaintiffs, who include three men injured in the crash, nearly $500,000, just under a ceiling above which any settlement would require legislative approval. The U.'s offer came Thursday after the victims' widows testified, leaving the jury in tears.

When the U. agreed to host the Chinese delegation in 2002, the school assumed responsibility for arranging the scholars' travel within the U.S., court records indicate. Attorneys for the families alleged the university acted negligently by contracting with an unlicensed travel business in New York, which in turn hired a driver unqualified to pilot the oversized van that plunged off a snow-covered Pennsylvania highway and folded against a tree.

Coupled with a settlement from the van owner's insurer, Friday's settlement means the 10 families split $800,000.

After the settlement was announced in court Friday, the trial's fifth day, the widows hugged 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder, the jurors and even attorneys defending the U.

The settlement concedes no negligence on the part of the university, whose lawyers were unavailable for comment Friday.

Representatives of the widows said the women were satisfied with the settlement.

A Hunan education official quoted the great Chinese scholar Confucius in expressing his pleasure with the outcome: "He wei gui," which translates to "peacefulness is prized."

"The Univerity of Utah is a very good university, a world-famous university," said Shu Fanqing, who directs the international exchange division of the province's Department of Education. "I don't think this tragedy will bring a negative impact to the future of our exchanges. We want to continue our exchange programs with the University of Utah. We Chinese people are very friendly to the American people."

The widows were not interested in damaging the U. and hope none of the settlement is pulled from its budget, said Robert Sykes, the Salt Lake City lawyer who represented them. He believes insurance will cover it.

"It's a good resolution," the lawyer said. "It would have been nice if [the state] settled before they had to get on an airplane and travel 13,000 miles."

All the victims were married with one child. None of the widows has remarried, Sykes said.

The U.'s Institute of International Tourism organized the delegation's 28-day excursion, which featured two weeks in Utah followed by another two on the coasts. According to court records, a doctoral student associated with the institute contracted a New York man named Zhou Zhou to handle the group's ground transportation in the East.

"There was no verification of his status and they ended up using a kitchen-table operator," Sykes said.

Zhou hired driver Yi Chen, even though he lacked the skills to safely handle Zhou's 15-passenger Chevrolet van, Sykes alleged.

"Fifteen-passenger vans can be very, very dangerous. You have to know how to drive them," he said. "They have an oversteer problem, meaning if they are loaded and something sudden happens on the road and you steer, the van steers farther than you expect with a car."

At the time of the accident on April 7, 2003, the group was en route from Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, D.C. They had just lunched at a McDonald's in Williamsport, Pa., and were enjoying the late-season snowstorm, said survivor Ke Qin Peng, a botanist from Hunan Agricultural University who was riding in the van's front seat. As they were heading south on Route 15, the van crested a hill and began fishtailing before sliding off the highway.

Peng was knocked unconsciousness, then awoke to find many of colleagues strewn around the snow. Two colleagues, Xiao Yang Li and Yi Wei, survived, but endured serious head trauma. The driver survived with bone fractures.

"Seven of my friends were beyond help," Peng said. "I climbed out and shouted for help. Lots of people came down to help save my friends."

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Van crash

The 10 men killed or injured in the April 7, 2003, crash outside Williamsport, Pa., were vice presidents at universities in China's Hunan province. Killed were:

Zhang Keming, 49, Yiyang Teachers College

Tang Shouyin, 45, Hunan Engineering Institute

Liao Liusheng, 46, Chenzhou Teachers College

Deng Guoyang, 44, Nanhua University

Ouyanag Zao, 51, Xiangtan Normal University

He Yunkun, 38, Xiangtan University

Huang He, 47, Hunan Commercial College

Injured were:

Xiao Yang Li, Huaihua Medical College

Yi Wei, Changde Normal University

Ke Qin Peng, Hunan Agricultural University

Also injured was driver Yi Chen, 35