Amazon sued in St. Clair County over construction method, storm response during deadly EF-3 tornado

Two new lawsuits were filed against Amazon and several engineering and construction companies after a deadly tornado leveled the Edwardsville distribution center in December 2021.

The lawsuits were filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court as three others remain pending in Madison County Circuit Court.

On Aug. 22, attorney James Lemonds of Brown & Crouppen PC in St. Louis filed a lawsuit on behalf of Justice Virden, who is the daughter of deceased delivery driver Larry Virden (22-LA-717).

Ted Gianaris of Gianaris Trial Lawyers in Alton filed the other lawsuit on Aug. 19 on behalf of delivery driver Craig Yost (22-LA-714).

Together, the suits were filed against defendants Inc., Amazon Logistics Inc., Services LLC, Contegra Construction Company LLC, Tristar Property Associates LLC, Stock & Associates Consulting Engineers Inc., Gray Design Group Inc., McNealy Engineering Inc., Gateway East 9B Owner LLC, Affton Fabricating & Welding Co. Inc., Cassidy Construction Company I Inc. and Quality Testing and Engineering Inc.

The complaints state that at approximately 8:28 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2021, an EF-3 tornado began on the south side of Interstate 270 and moved northeast, striking the Amazon DL14 delivery fulfillment center in Edwardsville. The tornado caused parts of the building’s walls to collapse and other parts of the structure to fail.

Six employees were killed in the collapse, including Virden, 46, Austin McEwen, 26, Kevin D. Dickey, 62, Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, Etheria S. Hebb, 34, and Deandre Morrow, 28.

Virden succumbed to his fatal injuries on Dec. 11, 2021. According to his obituary, he served in the U.S. Army from 1999-2006 before becoming a delivery driver. He was an “avid outdoorsman, loved racing, hunting and fishing,” and was affiliated with the Central Christian Church in O’Fallon.

“He had a wonderful sense of humor and was always helping others,” his obituary states. “Larry was considered a ‘Hero’ to his children and all who knew him.”

Yost’s suit states that he suffered injuries during the building’s collapse and was near workers who were crushed to death.

Both Yost and Virden were working as Amazon delivery drivers for third party employers, including CBRE. The suits state that delivery personnel were prevented from leaving the center even though the defendants knew a tornado was “highly likely.” The plaintiffs claim the defendants should have known that keeping personnel at the facility placed them in danger.

The suits also state that personnel were threatened with dismissal if they left work to seek shelter from the impending tornado and were required to work up until the moments before the tornado struck.

The plaintiffs claim the defendants knew tornadoes were possible after the National Weather Service issued multiple severe weather reports on Dec. 9 and a tornado watch and warning on Dec. 10 for the Edwardsville area.

Virden’s complaint states that the defendants knew or should have known that tornadoes “presented a predictable weather hazard” in the Edwardsville area and could cause a “potentially destructive hazard to warehouses if not properly constructed.”

The suit describes a similar tragedy on Nov. 2, 2018, when a category EF-1 struck an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, causing it to collapse and kill two people. The suit states that the tornado in Baltimore blew off the roof of the building, which caused a 50-foot section of eight-inch concrete wall to collapse toward the interior of the building.

Both the Baltimore fulfillment center and the Edwardsville fulfillment center were built using the “tilt-up construction” methods, “which left it vulnerable to tornados (sic) and severe weather.” The plaintiffs argue that the event in Baltimore “demonstrated the problems posed by the ‘tilt-up construction’ methods when faced with severe winds and tornadic weather events, as well as the need for safe rooms, shelter areas, and/or best available refugee areas for employees and contractors to take shelter in the event of severe weather.”

The complaints allege the defendants failed to ensure the fulfillment center was reasonably safe, as the Edwardsville facility was also built without a safe room, basement, tornado shelter or weather emergency action plan.

Yost alleges the defendants failed to equip safety features to save money “while knowingly putting Craig Yost in risk of grave harm.”

The plaintiffs also claim the defendants failed to properly train personnel on emergency plans, failed to implement proper safety procedures and failed to have a communication plan or alarm system.

Virden’s family seeks a judgment in excess of $50,000 for each count of the complaint, plus costs. Yost seeks unspecified damages “in an amount greater than the jurisdictional amount for this court,” plus costs.

This article was first published in Madison Record.

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