Negligence cited in 2004 digester collapse
A city contractor must pay the family of a man killed in a 2004 sewage tank accident more than $5 million, a judge ruled Friday.
Mike Cmos Jr. died in May 2004 when the roof of one of three large sewage digesters at Spokane’s wastewater treatment plant collapsed into the tank.
Authorities later discovered the 2.2 million-gallon, concrete digester had been filled too full with sludge, causing the roof to separate from the tank walls.
Cmos, 46, had worked as a maintenance mechanic at the plant for 24 years. Cmos’ family and two men who were injured in the accident filed suit against city contractor CH2M Hill last year.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Robert Austin blamed negligence for the accident in a 10-page ruling issued Friday. He ordered the company to pay more than $6 million to the victims and their families. The ruling followed a 3 ½-week trial that ended Sept. 30.
According to Austin’s orders, the Cmos estate will receive $2.6 million; Cmos’ widow, Kathy, will receive $2 million; and their daughter, Jennifer, who was 12 when her father died, will receive $650,000.
Mechanic Dan Evans, who suffered several broken bones, including his pelvis, was awarded $1 million.
Operator Larry Michaels, who suffered a serious knee injury, will receive $250,000, while his wife will receive $50,000. In his ruling, Austin agreed the two suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We think it’s a good result and a just result,” said Dan Huntington, a Spokane lawyer representing the Cmos family. “It was a complicated and difficult case, but I certainly thought we should win it.”
Cmos, Evans, Michaels and other plant workers were trying to stop a sewage leak May 10, 2004, when the accident occurred.
Evans fell 30 feet from the edge of the tank roof to the ground; Michaels was hit with a wall of sludge. Workers pumped sewage from the tank and recovered Cmos’ body the next day. In a news conference the day of the accident, then-Mayor Jim West said it was “a tragic day for the city of Spokane.”
A mayoral committee found in April 2005 that the accident resulted from “decades of actions and omissions.”
The plant has since hired nine new employees dedicated to improving plant safety. The plant also replaced three tank digesters, including the one that collapsed and killed Cmos, with two 2.85 million-gallon steel tanks that are less prone to failure, according to previously published reports.
The city was fined $222,000 for 16 violations of worker-safety rules and $6,000 for the release of partially treated sewage in the Spokane River as a result of the accident.
Nearly 1,000 people attended a memorial for Cmos, whom friends described as a family man with a love for fishing, playing guitar and brewing his own beer.
A sculpture of Cmos and his daughter was erected near the office entrance at the wastewater treatment plant in September 2006.
Huntington said Cmos died trying to stop sewage from leaking into the Spokane River.
“He was kind of a hero in what happened there,” Huntington said. “It was a terrible tragedy.”
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