May 27, 2011 in City

Ruling upheld in sewage death

Supreme Court says CH2M Hill liable for $6.5 million
By The Spokesman-Review
 

The state’s highest court on Thursday upheld a $6.5 million ruling 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 now-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 “The trial court’s conclusion that there was no independent intervening cause that superseded the negligence” of CH2M Hill “ … is supported by substantial evidence.”

Six justices signed Chambers’ opinion, and another three concurred, citing 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 check on a large sewage digester at Spokane’s wastewater treatment plant. The tank imploded and Cmos fell into the sludge. His body was recovered three days later. Injured in the collapse were city workers Dan Evans and Larry Michaels.

In his ruling Sept. 30, 2008, Austin did not put the blame on city officials but rather found that CH2M Hill was negligent in changes it directed on valves that moved sludge in and out of the tank. The digester processes solid wastes at a high temperature to make the solids stable enough to be used as commercial fertilizer.

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 Michaels’ wife $50,000.

The state fined the city $22,000 for 16 violations of worker safety rules and $6,000 for releasing 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 in 2009 awarded a $170 million contract to 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 (implosion) 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 multimillion dollar sewage treatment contracts.”

In a statement issued late Thursday, company executive John Corsi said CH2M Hill empathized with the families affected by the implosion.

“CH2M Hill respectfully disagrees, however, with (Thursday’s) ruling,” Corsi wrote. The company’s “technical staff adhered to all professional engineering standards and performed our contracted scope of work. We should not have been held responsible for work that was not part of our contract or outside of our control.”

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