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Family Receives $18M for Bridge Death

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

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A  jury awarded $17.72 million to the family of the worker who drowned during bridge construction on the Baylor University campus in 2014.

According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, it took jurors just six hours over two days of deliberations to come to the decision that Austin Bridge & Road, the general contractor hired to build the bridge, was 100 percent responsible for Jose Dario Suarez’s death.

Baylor stadium bridge
Flintco LLC

A jury awarded $17.72 million dollars to the family of Jose Dario Suarez, who drowned in 2014 while working on a new pedestrian bridge on the Baylor University campus.

The accident that resulted in the death of 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.

The total award included $5 million in damages for Suarez’s “pre-death pain and suffering as he drowned”; $1 million for each of his three children; approximately  $8 million for his wife; and $2 million in punitive damages, the paper noted.

The lawsuit, in which attorney Vuk Vujasinovic represented Suarez’s wife, two daughters, son and mother, had asked for $27 million in damages.

“I hope this verdict will send a message to all companies, not only construction companies, to properly train their workers and supervisors and not prioritize speed and profits over safety of workers and people,” said Vujasinovic.

In a statement delivered to PaintSquare News Monday (April 18), a spokesperson for Austin Bridge & Road said: "Austin Bridge & Road sympathizes with the family of Mr. Suarez following his unfortunate accident. While the decision is disappointing, we believe strongly in the appellate process and feel that ultimately, Austin Bridge & Road will be vindicated. Safety is a core value at Austin Bridge & Road and an issue that we take very seriously. We will continue to work hard to ensure safe projects and a culture at Austin that prioritizes the safety of all workers on Austin’s projects."

The trial, which took place in the 151st State District Court in Houston, lasted three weeks.

Multiple Defendants, One to Blame

As reported earlier, Suarez’s family sought damages from the nine companies involved in building the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Pedestrian Bridge or connected to the equipment used to build it.

The nine defendants were Flexifloat Construction Systems; Austin Commercial Inc.; Austin Bridge & 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 as well, 151st State District Judge Mike Engelhart dismissed the school from the suit in June.

Baylor stadium bridge rendering
Baylor University

Although nine defendants were named in the suit, the family's attorney asked the jury to hold only the project's general contractor, Austin Bridge & Road, liable for Suarez's death.

The suit claimed that 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.

Additionally, after the man-lift to which Suarez was tethered fell from a floating dock and into the river in near-freezing temperatures, it was reported that no one on the site stopped work to attempt to rescue Suarez, allegedly because they were under pressure to keep up with the construction schedule.

The steel erector subcontractor for which Suarez worked, Derr and Isbell Construction LLC, was fined $7,000 by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for failing to provide a safe work environment.

“On or about January 28, 2014, and at times prior thereto, employees worked from a Genie S-60 Boom lift on a floating barge on the Brazos River while the lift was not secured to the barge,” the citation said. The company paid $5,000 in a formal settlement.

However, during jury summations Wednesday (April 13), Vujasinovic asked the jury to place 100 percent of the blame on Austin Bridge & Road and to find other defendants not liable, which is what they did, the Herald-Tribune reported.

“Lots of times people wonder why there are so many companies named as defendants in these type of cases,” Vujasinovic told the local paper.

“As it turned out, everybody was pointing the finger at each other and sometimes it takes a trial like this to expose the bad actor.”

About the Company

Austin Bridge & Road is an Austin Industries company. According to its website, Austin Industries, founded in 1918, has an annual volume of $2 billion and more than 7,000 employee-owners. It covers a range of civil, commercial and industrial construction services through the operating companies Austin Bridge & Road, Austin Commercial and Austin Industrial. Its core values include safety, service, integrity and employee-ownership, it says.

   

Tagged categories: Access; Accidents; Austin Industrial; Bridges; Construction; Fall protection; Fatalities; Lawsuits; lift; North America; OSHA; Program/Project Management; Safety; Stadiums/Sports Facilities

Comment from B Brown, (4/19/2016, 11:33 AM)

This article would be a bit educational if it explained why Austin Bridge was held responsible and not the employer of the people actually doing the work.


Comment from M. Halliwell, (4/20/2016, 11:07 AM)

From what I can glean from other sources, it sounds like all the contractors were trying to point the finger at each other and Mr. Suarez. The other contractors pointed out safety rules that Austin B&R knew about years before the Baylor fatality and that were not followed. The submissions to the court (and accepted by the jury) were that Austin kept certain safety rules / practices hidden from the workers in the field to try to speed up the job (including testimony that workers didn't stop work to help the folks in the water due to timeline pressures). Sounds like that was the main reason the jury held them 100% responsible.


Comment from Pete Engelbert, CIH, CSP, PCS, (4/23/2016, 9:47 AM)

For why read: 29CFR1926.16. The General is always responsible for all employees of subcontractors as well as their own. That's why they are the General Contractor. No contract language can make the law go away.


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