May 26, 2011 in City, News

High court upholds sewage plant disaster penalty

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The state’s highest court upheld a $6.5 million ruling today against an engineering firm found responsible for the implosion of a sewage digester that killed a Spokane sewer plant worker and injured two others in 2004.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the decision by retired Superior Court Judge Robert Austin, who ruled in 2008 that CH2M Hill caused the event and should pay more than $6 million to the families of the workers.

“Mike Cmos died on May 10, 2004. It’s been more than seven years for his family,” attorney Dan Huntington said. “It’s been a long haul.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Tom Chambers invoked a Babylonian king who died in 1750 B.C. in explaining the long-held legal standing.

“At least since the time of Hammurabi’s code, construction design professionals had a duty not to cause injury or death because of a collapse of a building,” he wrote in part. “The trial court’s conclusion that there was no independent intervening cause that superseded the negligence” of CH2M Hill … “is supported by substantial evidence.”

Along with the six justices who signed Chambers’ opinion, three other justices signed a concurrence opinion that disagreed with the legal conclusions found by the majority. However, the other three justices also found different legal reasons to affirm Austin’s decision.

Huntington said he’d already spoken with the Cmos family about the decision.

“They have a lot of relief and are thankful that the Supreme Court affirmed Judge Austin’s decision,” he said. “There is also thankfulness that this whole thing is finally over.”

On May 10, 2004, Cmos was ordered to go check on a large sewage digester at Spokane’s wastewater treatment plant. The tank imploded and Cmos fell into the sludge, where his body was recovered three days later. Also injured in the collapse were city workers Dan Evans and Larry Michaels.

In his ruling on Sept. 30, 2008, Austin did not put the blame on city officials but rather ruled that the engineer from CH2M Hill was negligent in its suggested changes to the digester, which processes solid wastes at a high temperature to make the solids stable enough to be used as commercial fertilizer.

Following his decision, Austin ordered CH2M Hill to pay $2.6 million to the Cmos estate; $2 million to his widow, Kathy; and $650,000 to their daughter, Jennifer, who was 12 at the time Cmos was killed.

Austin also ordered the engineering firm to pay $1 million to Evans, who suffered broken bones and $250,000 to Michaels, who suffered a serious knee injury. The judge also awarded Michael’s wife $50,000.

The state fined the city $22,000 for 16 violations of worker safety rules and $6,000 for release of the sewage into the Spokane River.

Huntington said he applauded the city for taking security measures to try and make sure a similar incident doesn’t occur in the future. But he noted that a month after Austin’s decision, city leaders entered into another $30 million contract with CH2M Hill to rebuild the digesters.

Then Spokane County entered into a contract in early 2009 to pay about $170 million for CH2M Hill to construct and operate its solid waste facility.

“It’s a little ironic that the rebuilding project was done by CH2M Hill, which Judge Austin found to be negligent in the destruction of the digester to begin with,” Huntington said. “I have often wondered why our city council members or county commissioners have not asked CH2M Hill about Judge Austin’s ruling and what, if anything, they will be doing different when they give them multi-million dollar sewage treatment contracts.”

Seattle attorney Ken Masters, who with other attorneys represented CH2M Hill, said he hadn’t talked to his client yet, “so I can’t comment.”


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