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A civil court jury awarded more than $860 million to the family of one of the victims of a 2019 Dallas tower crane collapse.

Kiersten Smith, 29, died when the idled crane being used for an apartment project crashed onto an adjacent apartment building during a wind storm.

The Dallas County verdict, announced April 26, found Greystar Development and Construction LLC, the developer and general contractor, guilty of negligence. The jury found the second defendant, Bigge Crane and Rigging, the crane owner, not guilty. 

Both companies argued that they were not responsible for the accident. 

Greystar contended it was the crane operator’s and Bigge's fault for not allowing the crane to weathervane in the high winds on the day of the accident. Bigge claimed that, under its contract with Greystar, the developer was responsible for both the operator’s action and maintenance of the crane, ENR reported last week.

The jury awarded $500 million to Smith's estate. Her mother received nearly $350 million and Smith’s father was awarded around $20 million. Most of the awards were for mental anguish and loss of companionship.

It wasn't immediately clear how much, if any, of the jury damage award to Smith's estate was punitive. Such damages are capped in Texas and limited to twice the economic compensation, plus the amount awarded for noneconomic damages up to $750,000.

Nor is it clear how much will be paid. Damage awards can be appealed or negotiated once they are made.

But the huge dollar amount of the verdict in the nearly two-week trial seems likely to have ripple effects beyond the courtroom. Jury awards in personal injury and accident cases have increased dramatically in recent years. Known as "nuclear verdicts," they are defined as damage awards if over $10 million—with many that are much higher. Insurers often cite the awards as adding to policy costs.

Two of the largest verdicts of 2021 involving work-related accidents came from Texas juries, according to the National Law Journal. One verdict involving a vehicle drew a $353-million verdict; another plaintiff won a $222-million verdict.

Responsibility of Operator

During the crane collapse trial, jurors focused on testimony about the operator, Robert Hilty, who was also a defendant. The plaintiffs' lawsuit termed 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. Greystar argued it was Bigge’s fault since it owned the crane and hired the operator. 

Bigge contended that Greystar was contractually obligated for any injuries, accidents or death.

A key piece of evidence introduced by Jason Itkin, the attorney who represented Smith's family, was the contract between Greystar and Bigge. 

“It is getting more and more important  [to have a solid contract]," says Joel Dandrea, CEO of the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association.  "Now we are seeing more and more nuclear verdicts.” 

 A vital part of any construction contract is a clear description of responsibilities and a clause assigning liability and transferring risk arising from those duties. “No contract should be signed without” those clauses, says Dandrea.

The jurors appeared to view the evidence and lines of responsibility differently from that of federal safety investigators.

Six months after the collapse, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Bigge $26,520 for failing to inspect and remove rusty bolts, but then settled the case for half the proposed amount.

The federal investigators issued no penalties against Greystar.