Recently your South Carolina construction accident attorneys came across an interesting decision in the Supreme Court of the State of Washington. The case concerns a catastrophic tank failure at Spokane’s sewage treatment plant. The failure happened in May 2004 when three workers were doing their best to prevent overflowing septic sludge from running into the Spokane River. After the digester tank collapsed one of the maintenance workers fell into the sewage sludge and drowned. The trial judge in this case noted that the worker “arguably suffered one of the most disgusting and terrible deaths imaginable.”
The two other workers suffered serious on the job injuries when the digester tank overfilled and collapsed. One of the workers was thrown from the top of the dome shape digester tank and suffered a fractured pelvis, fractured tibia, fractured ribs, serious back and spine injuries including compression fractures of vertebrae, and sludge aspiration (action of drawing in fluid) causing a permanent reduction in lung capacity by 20%. The other worker, who was on the ground at the time of dome’s collapse, suffered serious knee and back injuries after being knocked over by a wave of cascading sewage sludge.
The deceased worker’s family and the two injured in the industrial accident sued CH2M Hill Inc. for negligence. CH2M is a corporation from Florida and the engineering firm hired by the City of Spokane as a consultant for the plant’s improvement project. Under the Industrial Insurance Act, the City of Spokane was immune from the suit, despite being the employer of the deceased worker and the two others injured in the accident. The judge in the bench trial ruled in favor of the plaintiffs (killed worker’s family and injured workers) the Court of Appeals certified the case to the Supreme Court of the State of Washington.
The defendant (CH2M Hill Inc.) contended that it and its agents fall into the immunity enjoyed by the City of Spokane under the Industrial Insurance Act and that alleged negligence should not be deemed a legal cause of plaintiffs’ injuries because those injuries are too remote. But, the State Supreme Court noted that contractors have been potentially liable for their own negligence at least since the time of Hammurabi. And initially the trial court found that CH2M’s breach of duty set into motion events that were the causes of the collapse of the digester tank and the cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries and death. And for not of the breach of duty, the collapse would not have occurred, and the State Supreme Court agreed.
Furthermore, CH2M contended that it had no duty to protect the killed worker and the two injured from the negligence or bad acts of others. Having framed the issue as a duty to supervise the worksite and warn of dangerous conditions created by others, CH2M argues that it had no legal duty to supervise the work place and that it did not assume such an obligation by contract. At the trial court the presiding judge ruled that CH2M should be liable for its own active negligence, concluding that there was no independent intervening cause that superseded the negligence of CH2M. The Supreme Court found no error in the applicable laws and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
Strangely, yet tragic and unfortunate, between the time of the initial accident and the State of Washington Supreme Court’s decision, there was a fatal construction accident at Spokane’s water sewage treatment plant. While attempting to build new waste digester tanks, as part of a $136 million upgrade of the plant, a 26-year-old construction worker was crushed by a falling beam. Seemingly, this facility is plagued by serious accidents, injuries, and deaths.