The families of two workers killed when a wall collapsed at the Gatlinburg, Tenn., Wastewater Treatment Plant last year claim the city and its construction and engineering firms knew of construction problems in 1997 but did not act to stabilize the wall.
In a pair of similarly-worded lawsuits filed Feb. 27 in Circuit Court in Sevierville, Tenn., the families of John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44, claim that failure to act resulted in the workers’ deaths April 5, 2011, when the east wall of the stabilization basin fell onto the flow control room, trapping the two men and spilling about 1 million gal of untreated sewage into the Little Pigeon River. Each family is asking $17 million in damages.
The defendants are Crowder Construction Co. of Charlotte, N.C.; Vaughn & Melton Consulting Engineers Inc. of Middlesboro, Ky.; Carpenter Wright Engineers PLLC of Nashville, and the City of Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg hired Flynt Engineering Co. of Knoxville in 1992 for engineering consulting and construction design for the 1.5-million gal equalization basin tank and later hired Crowder to build it. Both firms were responsible for construction supervision, the Eslinger suit says. (Vaughn & Melton acquired Flynt in 2001.) After completion in 1996, the basin showed signs of wall failure when it “contained sewage,” the suit says, calling that “a harbinger” of the 2011 incident.
The basin was not in use while Crowder and Flynt, with participation by Carpenter Wright, redesigned and rebuilt parts of it in 1997. However, while the east wall was inspected and evaluated with the rest of the structure, “no modifications or changes were made” to it, the suit says.
The suit charges that Crowder:
- “Failed to follow engineering design and drawings when constructing” the basin walls.
- Used cold joints at intersections of the east wall and interior baffle walls “resulting in high risk of sewage intrusion and loss of structural integrity”.
- “Failed to provide proper and required support” for the east wall where it joined north, south and interior baffle walls.
- “Failed to isolate rebar splices and couplers” from leakage and corrosion.
- “Misused and negligently installed” products including splicing couplers.
Flynt, it charges:
- Allowed the creation of cold joints at wall intersections when it “should have known” monolithic construction was required.
- Failed to provide design to protect and isolate rebar splices and couplers from acidic leakage and corrosion at wall intersections.
- “Failed to identify, report and correct departures from the engineering drawings, the misuse of construction products, and deficient construction practices.”
Carpenter Wright, which was brought in for the 1977 redesign and reconstruction, is charged with failure to:
- “Disclose original construction departures from the engineering drawings.”
- Disclose “inadequate wall strength” and risk of “deflections and rotations at corner intersections when the basin contained substantial fluid height.”
- Investigate east wall integrity in the face of “deflections, rotations, and cracks” at the north and east wall intersection.
Ken L. Griffin, principal in Carpenter Wright, said, “We are confident that the facts will show that Carpenter Wright Engineers did nothing to contribute to the failure.”
Both Crowder and Vaughn & Melton declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Albert J. Harb, a Knoxville attorney representing Gatlinburg, also declined comment, saying they had not had time to review and analyze the suits.
Robert E. Pryor of Knoxville represents the Eslinger family and Joe Napiltonia of Nashville represents the Storey family.