A jury trial in the lawsuit by a victim of a fatal 2019 Dallas crane collapse is underway, with attorneys for the companies involved playing the blame game over which was responsible and on the hook for a potentially huge damage award.
A complication facing all those involved is that U.S. Labor Dept. investigators never definitively described the exact cause of the horrific collapse even as the department proposed a penalty against the crane owner.
In June 2019, a severe windstorm toppled a 200-ft-tall tower crane being used to build an apartment building, killing 29-year-old Kiersten Smith and injuring several others when it crashed into a neighboring apartment complex in the Midtown area. Smith's family is seeking compensatory and exemplary damages “far in excess” of $1 million in a wrongful death lawsuit, court documents state. Altogether, there are 18 plaintiffs.
From the trial’s start, attorneys for Bigge Crane and Rigging Co., the owner of the Terex Peneir SK415 tower crane, and Greystar Development and Construction LLC, the developer and general contractor for the structure being built, pointed fingers at each other. They argued that their respective clients bear no responsibility.
The plaintiffs allege Bigge failed to discover loose bolts after the company missed an annual inspection. Bigge’s attorneys claim Greystar was responsible for the inspection.
Greystar denies the missed inspection caused the collapse. Instead, the company claims the operator, Robert Hilty, who is also a defendant, failed to follow bad weather protocol. During opening arguments, Greystar’s attorney said that the crane operator failed to place the crane in "weathervane" mode.
A critical part of the trial will hinge on which company was responsible for Hilty's actions. The plaintiffs' lawsuit terms him a "borrowed servant" of Greystar. In his deposition, Hilty says he was paid by Bigge but essentially served Greystar, according to Dallas public radio station KERA.
At the trial, the plaintiff's attorney showed jurors signed contracts stating that Bigge is leasing the crane and an employee to Greystar and that the contractor is responsible for any damages, injuries or deaths.
During testimony Monday, Philip Treacy, a project director for Greystar, reportedly said the company does not hold any responsibility in Smith’s death because the crane and its operator were leased from Bigge.
For more than an hour, Treacy evaded answering questions of responsibility, according to one local media report. Finally, Dallas County Court Judge Melissa J. Bellan cleared the jurors and admonished Treacy about his evasive answers.
"I’ve had it," the judge reportedly said in exasperation. After speaking with Greystar’s attorney outside the courtroom, a weary-looking Treacy returned to the stand.
ENR reached out to both sides’ attorneys but did not receive responses by press time.
Failure to Weathervane
In the coming days, expert witnesses are expected to testify about the crane position and bolts. One exhibit jurors will likely view is a report by engineer Daniel Stolk, for Terex, the crane manufacturer, which is also a defendant. Terex denies any responsibility for the collapse.
In his report, Stolk stated that the crane operator had failed to release the slewing brakes prior to the wind event and that additional signage on the crane increased the wind loads.
The report states that wind gusts measured just above 71 mph and that the position of the counter jib "created pressure from the side and front of the jib across the entire upper crane.”
Had the crane been allowed to weathervane, the crane's counter jib would have pointed with the wind, the report stated.
Hilty testified he weathervaned the crane, before leaving for the weekend.
In a critical part of Stolk's report, the author cites deposition statements made by Hilty. "When asked why he pointed the crane in a northerly direction, he responded, 'Just out of habit. Unless there was major wind that day that made my crane point a different direction, I would ... just point it over due north over the corner of the building ... that was my go-to spot to leave the crane.'"
This turned out to be the incorrect direction, the report claims.
With high winds blowing, the under-torqued connection bolts between tower mast 2 and 3 weakened the entire mast, the report states.
The crane manufacturer had calculated the forces per for each bolted connection to withstand wind loads up to 115 mph, Stolk's report said, provided "the crane can weathervane."
Six months after the collapse, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Bigge $26,520 for failing to inspect and remove rusty bolts but settled the case for half the proposed amount. OSHA issued no penalties against Greystar.
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