Three big contractors agree €600m settlement for fatal collapse of Cologne archives building

BAM, Bilfinger and Strabag subsidiary Ed. Züblin have agreed to pay €200m each to the City of Cologne to settle liabilities arising from the fatal collapse of the city’s municipal archive building in March 2009.

The building, which housed records going back to the Middle Ages, disintegrated while a joint venture of the three companies (BAM was represented by its subsidiary Wayss & Freytag Ingenieurbau) were working on a section of a metro line underneath.

Two people in adjacent residential buildings died in the collapse, which is estimated to have cost the city €1.1bn.

Nine years later, in January 2018, five defendants went on trial for negligent homicide over the catastrophe: two from the construction management department of the city’s transport operator KVB, and three from the construction joint venture.

The ten-month trial resulted in a suspended sentence for one KVB employee, with the others being acquitted.

The judge hearing the case said that the collapse was caused by a faulty slurry wall in the metro line works, but arguments over the liabilities of the construction JV dragged on.

Cologne City Council approved the €600m out-of-court settlement on Monday, 29 June.

It commits the JV members to complete the underground works at their expense and make a space for a future memorial.

Strabag welcomed the settlement.

"In view of the extremely complex issue regarding the cause of the damage, which has kept all involved parties occupied for more than 11 years and would probably have kept them occupied for another 10 to 15 years, and after intensive consideration of all options, we consider the agreement reached to be reasonable – not only for all project participants but also for our shareholders," said Strabag chief executive Thomas Birtel.

He added: "The time has come to draw a line under the past and to focus on the challenges facing us in these difficult times. Still, the third of March 2009 will remain a deeply tragic day that we will never forget."

Strabag and Bilfinger said their insurance would cover the payout, but BAM said an insurance shortfall meant it would take an exceptional charge in the 2020 accounts for approximately €40m.

Mayor of Cologne Henriette Reker said the settlement would heal "a gash in the city".

"I support the settlement because otherwise we would have postponed the reconstruction underground and also above ground for an indefinite time and legal procedures hinder the further development," she said.

"In addition to the further development of the north-south light rail system, we can thus financially secure the task of restoring the archives for the generations as well as refinance the costs of the new building for the historical archive borne so far solely by the city of Cologne in these difficult financial times. The collapse changed the city. That will stay. But we are now focusing on the specific design of the future."

Image: One of the first pictures taken after the collapse of Cologne City Archives (Frank Domahs/ BY-SA 3.0)

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