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Trial Begins in Bridge Worker's Death

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

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The trial concerning the alleged wrongful death of a worker who drowned in early 2014 during construction of a bridge on the Baylor University campus was set to open Tuesday (March 29), a local newspaper reported Monday (March 28).

The accident that resulted in the death of Jose Dario Suarez, 55, occurred during work on a $9.1 million pedestrian bridge that is part of Baylor's new $260 million McLane Football Stadium. The bridge crosses over the Brazos River, linking the campus and stadium.

Baylor stadium with pedestrian bridge
Flintco LLC

Testimony was set to begin March 29 in the wrongful death suit of Jose Dario Suarez, who drowned while working on the $9.1 million pedestrian bridge that is part of Baylor's new $260 million McLane Football Stadium.

The suit, filed in Texas court March 6, 2015, by Suarez’s widow, three children and mother, seeks damages from the nine companies involved in building the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Pedestrian Bridge or connected to the equipment used to build it, according to the Waco Herald-Tribune.

The nine defendants are Flexifloat Construction Systems; Austin Commercial Inc.; Austin Bridge and Road; Derr and Isbell Construction Inc.; Flintco; Genie Industries Inc.; Terex Corp.; Robishaw Engineering; and Core Safety.

Although the university had been named as a defendant in the original statement, the school was dismissed from the suit in June by 151st State District Judge Mike Engelhart, the paper noted.

The trial is expected to last three to four weeks, according to Vuk Vujasinovic, the attorney representing the family.

Worksite Accident

Suarez and a co-worker, Terry Watson, were dragged into the river Jan. 28, 2014, when the man-lift to which they were tethered fell from a floating dock and into the river in near-freezing temperatures, as reported earlier.

Although both men were harnessed to the equipment when it fell, Watson was able to free himself from his harness and swim to the river's surface. He was rescued and treated for hypothermia at an area hospital.

Crews and responders were unable to find Suarez or the equipment, however, setting off a four-hour search with sonar by Waco firefighters and state game wardens.

Divers found Suarez's body that evening in 16 feet of water, and he was pronounced dead; an autopsy later concluded that he had drowned.

"He was still attached to the equipment with his safety harness and flotation devices," Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton told the following day.

Suarez and Watson both worked for subcontractor Derr and Isbell Construction LLC.

Baylor stadium with footbridge
By Kairos14 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Among the allegations in the lawsuit, the project was said to be four months behind schedule "and therefore at risk of disrupting the start of the Baylor football season in their new stadium," the pretrial motion said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Derr and Isbell for one serious violation of OSHA's General Duty clause. The $7,000 fine was reduced to $5,000 in a formal settlement.

Lawsuit Allegations

As reported earlier, the Suarez family’s suit alleges the accident was caused by "misuse of multiple components of marine equipment," including a tugboat, the Flexifloat barge, the Genie lift, chains that were meant to secure the lift to the barge, life-saving equipment, and other items.

The accident is reported to have occurred when Watson, while attempting to maneuver the lift closer to the target work area, drove beyond the edge of the barge and into the water.

The pretrial motion quotes a representative of one of the general contractors as saying that it was "unsafe" to drive the lift on the barge while the barge was in the water. Furthermore, the barge lacked barricades or railings, had a relatively small surface area, and was not connected to other barges.

Additionally, court documents indicated the lift was not chained down, as required by regulations, the Herald-Tribune reported.

However, another representative stated the lift was driven on the barge because workers "didn't want to take the time” to move the barge. The project was four months behind schedule "and therefore at risk of disrupting the start of the Baylor football season in their new stadium," the motion said.

The worksite schedule was also cited as a reason none of the workers stopped working to attempt to rescue Suarez. According to the Herald-Tribune, the project was four months behind schedule and “time was of the essence,” Vujasinovic said.

“The fact that they kept working on the bridge even while the body was still in the river supports the family’s claim that the workers were being rushed to try to keep up with the schedule,” Vujasinovic claimed.

The construction contract included penalties of up to $20,000 per day for falling behind schedule, the motion said.


Tagged categories: Access; Accidents; Bridges; Construction; Fall protection; Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Lawsuits; lift; North America; Stadiums/Sports Facilities

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