The jury verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit against companies involved in a 2019 Seattle crane collapse that killed four people split damages among three different companies—and also blamed a fourth firm that wasn't a defendant—but not in a way that matched the state safety fines proposed against the firms.
The accident sent a partially dismantled tower crane mast crashing down onto a Google-owned building under construction and onto an adjacent street, crushing automobiles waiting at an intersection. Among those killed were retired city planner Alan Justad, 71, and Sarah Pantip Wong, a 19-year-old college student, who were in cars that were crushed by debris from the falling crane mast.
Their families accused three companies involved in the crane's dismantling of negligence. A jury in state superior court in Seattle ordered the firms to pay about $112 million in damages to the Justad and Wong families, and to two other people who were injured.
Two ironworkers who were on the crane at the time of the collapse, Travis Corbet, 33, of Local 29 in Oregon and Andrew Yoder, 31, of Local 86 in Washington, fell to their deaths. Their families were not plaintiffs in the case.
The trial took six weeks and deliberations lasted another week.
David Beninger, an attorney who represented Justad's family, told a television reporter after the March 14 verdict that the key issues in the trial were "pins and winds," referring to what he claimed were the premature removal of bolts connecting the tower crane sections and the wind speeds while the work was done.
Beninger says he expects there will be appeals.
No Damages Due From Contractor
The jurors found four companies—crane service company Northwest Tower Crane, general contractor GLY Construction, crane owner Morrow Equipment and Omega Morgan, which operated a separate mobile tower crane that lowered the other tower crane's mast sections to the ground—to be negligent.
But the jury qualified its finding.
GLY Construction's negligence did not contribute to the deaths, the jurors found, so they declined to make the contractor liable for any part of the damages.
The Washington State Dept. of Labor & Industries had proposed a fine against GLY Construction of $25,200, which the contractor is contesting.
The rest of the jury verdict also failed to line up exactly with the state's proposed safety penalties.
The jurors found that Northwest Tower Crane Service Inc., which was fined a total of $12,000 for several serious violations, to be 45% liable for the deaths. That would make it responsible for about $68 million in damages.
Northwest Tower Crane Service had said that other companies were to blame for the collapse and that it had no responsibility for what occurred.
While state officials chose not to issue a fine against Omega Morgan, the jury instead found the company 30% responsible. That makes it responsible for about $45.1 million of the total damage award. Citing its role in the process, the company has denied any fault and its attorney, Rodney L. Umberger, Omega Morgan soon would file a motion for a new trial.
More Fine and Damage Deviation
Morrow Equipment, which supplied the crane erection and dismantling crew, was also cited by OSHA. It is contesting the largest proposed state fine related to the collapse, $70,000. The company has denied giving the crew directions or managing them on the day of the collapse.
The civil court lawsuit jury found Morrow Equipment to be 25% responsible for the deaths even though the company was actually not a defendant in the lawsuit. Had it been a defendant, the jury's decision would have caused the company's liability to have been about $37 million.
In their investigation, state labor officials tied the collapse to the premature removal of most of the bolts securing the tower sections together. In their announcement of the citations on Oct. 17, 2019, they said that with pins removed, "the tower was significantly weakened, making it susceptible to the 45-plus miles-per-hour wind gust that toppled it. When the pins are in place, tower cranes can withstand much stronger gusts.”
Manufacturers don't recommend removing most or all pins from the tower connections in anticipation of dismantling, but crane safety experts previously told ENR that the procedure has become a fairly common practice in recent years.
Additionally, OSHA regulations don't specifically forbid it, if crane assembly and disassembly is done according to either manufacturer procedures or “employer procedures,” developed by a qualified person.
This story was updated March 23 to clarify that Omega Morgan employed the operators of a separate mobile tower crane whose role was to lower the other tower crane's mast sections to the ground during dismantling.