The parents of a two-year-old girl killed when their home was buried in the Dec. 19, 2015, avalanche have agreed to settle a negligence complaint against the city of Longyearbyen for 2.365 million kroner that will be paid through an insurance company, with the city not acknowledging responsibility for the girl’s death, according to the family’s attorney.
The settlement, widely reported late Friday, ends a dispute where the parents originally sought 4.4 million kroner, accusing the city and other officials of failing to fully disclose the known avalanche risks to the home when the family moved into it in 2013. Nikoline Røkenes, the daughter of Pia Sivertsen and Kim Rune Røkenes, died after she and her three-year-old sister, Pernille, were buried in the avalanche that destroyed 11 homes and also killed a local teacher.
“The survivors are satisfied that a very stressful case has been closed,” Christian Lundin, the family’s attorney, told NRK. “It has been a long struggle where they have experienced a lot of resistance and it was only when the insurance company got on track that the case was resolved.”
Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen told NRK he is also satisfied with the outcome, but in addition to continuing to maintain the city’s lack of responsibility also asserted the insurance company has been involved in the case since last year and Lundin has been “litigating the case in the media instead of talking to us.”
“It has been our goal all the way to safeguard the family in the best possible way,” he said. “At the same time, the process has clearly documented that the local council is not responsible for what happened.”
A series of assessments of Sukkertoppen, the mountain near the center of Longyearbyen where the avalanche occurred, by experts dating back to 1992 – before the city officially incorporated in 2001 – concluded it was possible a snowslide that could hit residences might occur about every 20 to 30 years. The earliest report recommends several safety measures including building supports, safety nets and snow shields, none of which were implemented.
A handful of local officials including the fire chief and municipal engineer did begin monitoring avalanche conditions in 1993, but that ceased when the city incorporated for reasons current officials uncertain of, except the transitional period resulted in some routines being overlooked or set aside. A pilot project to resume avalanche monitoring was announced in the fall of 2015 and to begin in February of 2016, although immediate monitoring started shortly after the avalanche struck.
A subsequent avalanche from the sae mountains that destroyed two apartment buildings February of 2017 resulted in-depth assessment by The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, which among other findings declared climate change was affecting the severity and behavior of storms to such a degree that risk assessments based on historical data were no longer valid. Further studies resulted in a total of 142 homes in the neighborhood beneath the mountain being declared unacceptably at risk of being hit by snowslides and are scheduled to be demolished starting this May. Construction of snow barriers and other infrastructure also started last year for homes in the vicinity considered exposed, but acceptably so with protective measures in place.
Nikoline’s parents previously told NRK they would not agree to a settlement unless the city admitted liability. But Lundin told the news network “this is a very hard-hit family driven by lawyers from the other side.”
“They have understood that a trial would be a long, expensive and demanding process,” he said. “Therefore, it was important to bring an end to the case. They feel that they have got a good deal at least for the financial outcome.”