Earlier this month, the State of Washington Court of Appeals affirmed a $150 million jury verdict against subcontractors involved in the disassembly of a tower crane that collapsed in 2019. The collapse, which was caught on video, killed four people and injured five. The Washington court’s recent opinion is notable for its detailed explanation of what allegedly went wrong. Here is what the court had to say:
The general contractor for a building construction project, GLY Construction (GLY), leased a tower crane from Morrow Equipment (Morrow), and Seaburg Construction supplied an operator for it. When construction neared completion, GLY hired Northwest Tower Crane (NWTC) to disassemble the tower crane. NWTC hired Omega to use its mobile crane to lower pieces of the tower crane to the ground as NWTC’s ironworkers disassembled it.
Disassembly of the tower crane began on Saturday, April 27, 2019. That morning, GLY, Morrow, NWTC, and Omega held a safety meeting. The parties discussed who was in charge of the disassembly, the weather conditions, and the mobile crane’s “load charts,” which specified its wind limits. The weather that morning was “good,” but the most recent forecast described the weather as “breezy” with northwest winds of 15 to 25 m.p.h. expected. As initially configured, the mobile crane would have to stop work if the winds exceeded 11 m.p.h.
The contractors had developed a “lift plan” that would lower the disassembled tower crane down in sixteen separate lifts by the mobile crane. Importantly, that plan called for shortening the mobile crane’s main boom from 179 feet in length to 147 feet before attempting the disassembly’s single biggest “critical” lift, the ninth lift of the tower crane’s slewing assembly. A lift is “critical” if it requires more than 75 percent of the mobile crane’s lifting capacity. Eight of the lift plan’s sixteen lifts, lifts nine through sixteen, were critical lifts. For a critical lift, reducing the boom’s length gives the mobile crane greater lifting capacity. The slewing assembly was not only heavy, it was dimensionally large as well. Consequently, the mobile crane’s operating manual advised not attempting such a lift if the winds were 8 m.p.h. or greater.
Despite the lift plan, Omega’s mobile crane operator attempted the critical lift of the slewing assembly without shortening the mobile crane’s main boom. The mobile crane was unable to hoist the slewing assembly. NWTC’s ironworkers tried unsuccessfully to pry it free. Omega’s mobile crane operator decided to unhook the mobile crane from the tower crane to reconfigure the mobile crane, and NWTC’s ironworkers went ahead disassembling the tower crane by removing pins that secured one section of the tower crane to the next.
When the mobile crane was ready 30-45 minutes later, according to its operator, the wind “was blowing like 22-27 miles per hour, so the operator told NWTC that it had to shut down for the day. Destabilized, the disassembled tower crane was “standing really tall … and the wind came along and blew it over.” The tower crane collapsed and fell onto a busy city street, killing four people and injuring five.
Omega challenged the verdict claiming, among other things, that the trial court erred by refusing to permit evidence of a “Mary Carter” agreement between the plaintiffs and one of the other defendants. A “Mary Carter” agreement is a settlement agreement between a plaintiff and one defendant allying them against another defendant at trial. It typically places a cap on the liability of the settling defendant, who remains a defendant in the case. As part of the agreement, the plaintiff agrees to decrease the amount actually paid by the settling defendant in direct proportion to any increase in the liability of the non-settling defendants. This gives the settling defendant a financial incentive to “point the finger” at the non-settling defendant and is often admissible to show bias.
The problem for Omega, however, was that it had no evidence and only speculation that such an agreement actually existed. In the absence of such evidence, the court refused to overturn the jury’s verdict on this basis. The court similarly rejected Omega’s other grounds for appeal, which will presumably be appealed further to the Washington Supreme Court. Stay tuned.