Civil engineer denies liability in Amazon building collapse, alleges delivery driver ‘voluntarily assumed’ risk by working in ‘unsafe conditions’

Civil engineering and land surveying firm Stock & Associates argues that it provided services for the lot upon which an Edwardsville Amazon facility was built and should not be held liable for the building’s collapse during a deadly EF-3 tornado in December.

On April 22, attorney Mitchel Torrence of Clausen Miller PC in Chicago filed an answer on behalf of Stock & Associates Consulting Engineers Inc., of Chesterfield, to an amended lawsuit filed by Alice McEwen, as independent administrator of the estate of Austin McEwen.

The defendant admits that it provided civil engineering services in regards to the lot in 2017, but denies that it provided any engineering services towards the build of the delivery station at any time. It also denies being present at the location during or after the building’s construction.

“Answering further, Stock & Associates specifically denies participating in, orchestrating, managing, controlling, directing, or being in charge of any work done related to the subject warehouse, including but not limited to directing the means, methods, or operative details of the work being done by any on-site workers,” Torrence wrote.

In its affirmative defenses, Stock & Associates added that its obligations according to a contract with defendant TriStar Properties were to “provide civil engineering services only.”

The defendant also argued that the decedent was contributorily negligent for his injuries and “voluntarily assumed the risk of injury by knowingly working in unsafe conditions.”

McEwen, 26, of Edwardsville, was one of six who were killed at the Amazon fulfillment center when the tornado struck the building at 8:28 p.m. weeks before Christmas with winds reaching speeds of 150 mph. The tornado caused a portion of the building’s roof and walls to collapse, leveling parts of the facility.

The other victims killed in the deadly storm include Deandre S. Morrow, 28, of Belleville, Kevin D. Dickey, 62, of Carlyle, Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, of Alton, Etheria S. Hebb, 34, of St. Louis, and Larry E. Virden, 46, of Collinsville.

The amended complaint was filed on March 8 in the Madison County Circuit Court by attorney Jack Casciato of the Clifford Law Offices in Chicago and John Malec of Martin Malec & Leopold PC in St. Louis. The suit names as defendants Stock & Associates, Gray Design Group Inc., Inc., LLC, Contegra Construction Company LLC and TriStar Properties LLC.

The complaint states that the construction, engineering and design companies built, designed, developed, and/or constructed the Amazon fulfillment center without a basement or proper storm shelter and failed to recommend the facility be built with a shelter.

The suit also states that the defendants built the facility in a “tilt-up” wall construction manner when they knew or should have known that this type of construction causes walls to fall when struck with high winds. The defendants allegedly failed to adequately build the building in a way to prevent walls from collapsing and the roof from separating when struck with high winds.

The defendants are also accused of building the facility without a basement or storm shelter even though they knew Edwardsville was prone to inclement weather including tornados.

The suit states that the tornado began on the south side of Interstate 270 and moved northeast, striking the Amazon facility. The tornado caused parts of the building’s walls to collapse as well as multiple other structure failures, resulting in numerous injuries and six deaths.

Amazon allegedly employs an individual who is responsible for monitoring severe weather updates.

Weather warnings were issued from the National Weather Service as early as 3:44 a.m. on Dec. 9, when residents in the area were warned about a chance of thunderstorms that could become strong to severe. They were also warned that a tornado was possible.

Then at 2:58 p.m. on Dec. 9, the National Weather Service warned that scattered severe storms were possible between 8 p.m. on Friday and 3 a.m. on Saturday.

“The primary threat with these storms will be damaging winds. A few tornadoes will be possible as well,” the warning stated.

At 8:06 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a “take shelter now” tornado warning for the area. The tornado struck the Edwardsville facility about 20 minutes later.

“Despite having numerous warnings from the National Weather Service that the Edwardsville area was at-risk of devastating weather or tornadoes, Amazon had workers and independently contracted delivery service partners working during a holiday ‘peak season’ until moments before the EF-3 tornado obliterated the subject fulfillment center in Edwardsville,” Casciato wrote.

According to the complaint, the fulfillment center known as “STL4” was operated, maintained, managed and/or controlled by Amazon. The facility did not have a basement shelter or storm shelter even though Amazon allegedly knew that the area was prone to tornadoes. The suit states that 11 tornadoes have hit the area since 2000.

Although McEwen was an independent contractor, Amazon allegedly instructed him on the operative details of his work, including controlling the deliveries he was to make, the routes he was to take, the number of deliveries he was to make during a shift, monitoring and scoring his work performance, requiring him to share his phone data and having the means to terminate him.

The suit states that Amazon failed to evacuate all those present at the Edwardsville facility when it knew or should have known that keeping them working at the center placed them in imminent danger. Amazon also allegedly failed to properly monitor the developing inclement weather at or near Edwardsville to timely implement life-saving tornado preparedness and response procedures.

Additionally, Amazon failed to operate a warehouse that was built to withstand tornadoes or equip the warehouse with a proper storm shelter. Amazon also allegedly failed to have an Emergency Action Plan or to ensure that all individuals in the warehouse knew of the safest place to shelter despite the building not having a basement or storm shelter.

The suit states that Amazon did not have a proper alarm or warning in place to warn individuals of an approaching tornado.

Amazon is accused of carelessly requiring individuals, including McEwen, to continue working up until moments before the tornado struck the building. The defendant then directed McEwen and five others to shelter in a bathroom when it knew the bathroom was not a safe or proper shelter.

During a press conference on Jan. 17, Casciato said that all who died were in the bathroom and those who survived the storm were in the north part of the building.

He added that while Amazon claims the building was built up to code, the defendant failed to consider the safety needs of the workers in the building.

“There is a difference between sheltering and given a proper storm shelter,” he said.

Casciato said Amazon instructed workers to continue working because the defendant was “more concerned with keeping their production line running.”

This article was first published in Madison Record.

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