Employment Law Daily Texas jury mulls safety issues, awards $17.7M in worker death
Monday, April 25, 2016

Texas jury mulls safety issues, awards $17.7M in worker death

A jury in Harris County, Texas, returned a $17.7 million verdict in favor of the family of a 55-year-old ironworker who drowned during the construction of a pedestrian bridge for Baylor University’s football stadium in January 2014, finding from among several companies, only Austin Bridge and Road, L.P. was liable for the fatality. Texas attorney Vuk Vujansinovic, who investigated and pursued the wrongful death claim for the family, said that Austin Bridge and Road had hidden certain safety rules from workers in an effort to speed up the job. Fatality. Jose Dario Suarez was tied off in a boom lift that was located at the corner of a barge on the Brazos River, according to Vujansinovic, when the boom lift went off the barge with Suarez and a fellow ironworker in it. Suarez was unable to free himself and drowned. Safety issues. The investigation spanned more than two years, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, with thousands of documents uncovered and analyzed, including some showing that Austin Bridge and Road kept certain important safety rules hidden from the workers in the field due to a desire to speed up the job. Workers testified in depositions that that the boom lifts were not chained to the barges. The safety personnel for the companies at the site, including the safety personnel for Austin Bridge and Road, testified in depositions and at trial that they were not at the work site at the time of Suarez’s death. Trial. At trial, the plaintiffs were able to show that Austin Bridge and Road was responsible for Suarez’s death, although the company fought to avoid responsibility, arguing that it was the other worker’s fault or that the Genie lift was defective in some way, according to Vujansinovic. The evidence at trial showed that two of the original seven defendants did not contribute to the safety lapses that caused Suarez’s death. Those two defendants, Core Safety and Robishaw Engineering, were released by the judge before the jury began deliberations. In what Vujansinovic called “a unique turn of events,” the other defendants argued that Austin Bridge and Road was responsible for Suarez’s death and that the company failed to follow safety rules about which the company was informed years before the Baylor construction project began. Vujansinovic said that over a dozen witnesses testified, including a construction expert hired by Austin Bridge and Road. After hearing additional evidence that the boom lifts were not chained to the barges and that they had been driven all around the barges on a daily basis, the expert flipped his testimony to say that Austin Bridge and Road had not been acting reasonably and prudently. The plaintiffs’ attorney asked the jury attribute 100 percent of the blame to Austin Bridge and Road for failing to follow the safety rule of chaining the lifts to the barges in favor of planning the entire job for speed. Verdict. After 6 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict on April 14 that placed all of the responsibility for Suarez’s death on Austin Bridge and Road. The jury awarded Suarez’s family $17,720,000.00.

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