A judge is set to begin a trial this week in state court in Houston over the construction accident that killed Jose Dario Suarez more than two years ago. The Texas ironworker drowned while working on a part of Baylor University’s new $266-million football stadium project.
Lawyers for Suarez' estate contend that the 55-year-old died as a result of negligence by eight different construction and equipment companies working on or involved with the project.
Suarez and another ironworker were working on a pedestrian bridge in a boom lift placed on a modular river barge on January 28, 2014. Suarez drowned when the boom lift, to which he was tied off, fell into the frigid waters of the Brazos River, in a section sometimes referred to as Lake Brazos. The co-worker managed to surface and survived.
The Suarez family is seeking more than $1 million in damages, with their Houston-based lawyer, Vuk Vujasinovic, casting a wide net encompassing every company with any role in the project. Baylor University, also targeted in the initial lawsuit, no longer is a defendant.
There have been hundreds of legal documents entered into the record since the lawsuit was first filed in 2014, with the various parties sparring over everything from the deposition of witnesses to the applicability of maritime law.
Construction risk managers are aware of some of the problems the trial involves. Scheduled to begin this week in Harris County Civil Court before Judge Mike Engelhart, the trial is expected to cast a spotlight on whether workers should be 100% tied off, especially when working over water.
The Suarez family claims contractors were “consciously disregarding safety” in order to rush a job that was four months behind schedule.The lawsuit also claims that the contractors failed to ensure that proper safety procedures were followed, which required the contractors to secure the boom lift to the barge with chains.
The Suarez family’s lawyer has submitted to the court a list with dozens of potential witnesses, a mix of experts and managers at the various companies named in the lawsuit.
Attorneys for the contractors have aggressively disputed the charges, arguing the 100 percent tie-off was necessary given the risk of the workers falling onto the barge or other surfaces.
The prime contractor, according to an attorney involved in the litigation, is understood to be Irving, Texas-based Austin Bridge & Road. That company, said the attorney, is believed to have had a teaming agreement for the project with Flintco LLC, which is based in Tulsa.
The contractors’ legal team has filed a list of 739 different pieces of evidence it plans to show the jury, from the agenda of a pre-installation conference held before the fatal construction accident to a letter from the boom lift manufacturer approving use of the boom on a barge.
Lawyers for the contractors could not be reached for comment.
Defendants: Law Rules Out New Damages
In pleadings, attorneys for subcontractor Derr & Isbell Construction, Suarez’s direct employer, and Austin Bridge & Road, which is a unit of Dallas-based Austin Industries, have argued that the Texas Workers Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy available to a worker covered by workers' compensation policies. Therefore, the Suarez family is not entitled to additional damages.
The Texas law prohibits employees from seeking common law remedies, the contractors claimed, in exchange for allowing employees to recover benefits for injuries in the course and scope of employment without proving fault by the employer and without regard to their negligence or that of their coworkers. Austin Bridge & Road also denied that exemplary damages are available or proper in a case where workers' compensation insurance exists.