University of Utah and contractors sued over steam accident
Accident • 3 lawsuits have been filed, more are possible.
Published: March 15, 2012 10:21PM
Updated: March 15, 2012 11:52PM

The University of Utah and its contractors negligently led workers to believe a tunnel they were working in was safe when it was more like a death trap, needing only a power outage to fill it with 400-degree steam, according to the latest lawsuit filed over the incident.

Seven of the 12 workers injured in November 2010 industrial accident have filed two personal injury lawsuits seeking compensation for myriad injuries they suffered as they scrambled to escape the chemicals and steam spewing from a pipe in a utility tunnel.

U. officials declined comment, but in a response to a third lawsuit filed by subcontractor Thermal West Industrial they blame various contractors for not securing the cut-open pipe and for miscommunications that led to the accident.

The injured men were employees of two subcontractors, KK Mechanical and Thermal West, hired by the U.’s general contractor, Layton Construction. The tunnel work was associated with construction of the Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building, a $130 million USTAR center to be dedicated next month.

The university had allowed an “ultra hazardous” situation to develop with a high-temperature water line running into the tunnel near the HPER Mall West, around 300 S. 1850 East, alleges a suit filed Wednesday by Salt Lake City lawyer George Waddoups. The pipe allegedly was supposed to have been abandoned and capped, but was still connected to the decrepit network of hot-water lines that heats campus. During the project, crews cut the pipe and worked around it, thinking it was safe thanks to assurances from the general contractor, the suit alleges.

“As the general contractor, Layton Construction should have done a job assessment survey to make sure when they started that everything was as represented to them as to the safety and condition of the tunnel,” Waddoups said.

A power outage, a common occurrence on campus, tripped a valve, releasing more than 40,000 gallons of super-heated and chemical-laced water, according to documents filed in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.

All three lawsuits rely on a report released last year by the Utah Labor Commission, faulting the U. for not ensuring the pipe in question was capped and disconnected from the U.’s utility systems. The U. has formally contested those findings.

The network of hot-water and power distribution lines has been falling apart for years and will require $100 million to be adequately upgraded, officials say. The Legislature last session agreed to appropriate $22 million for the first phase of this effort.

The state, the U. and Layton are defendants in the personal injury lawsuits, along with the engineering firm Van Boerum and Frank Associates and another subcontractor, Reynolds Brothers Excavating.

“We feel we did everything appropriately and we acted appropriately toward our subcontractors and we plan to defend this lawsuit,” said Layton’s lawyer, Joseph Minnock. Other defendants have filed court papers denying blame for the accident.

Thermal West, meanwhile has filed a third lawsuit against the U., seeking to recover $4.5 million in business it says it lost because of the accident. The subcontractor also hopes to recoup the $325,000 in worker compensation it expects to pay.

In its response to Thermal West, the U. alleges the pipe was not supposed to be abandoned, but was awaiting connection to new piping in the tunnel.

Waddoups filed his suit on behalf of Jerry Chizmadia, Michael Jefferies, Juan Flores, Eduardo Suarez Sarrano, Jorge Luis Valle and their families. The men “were exposed to hot steam, chemicals, contaminants and asbestos as they tried to maneuver through the tunnel to escape to the few ladders to the surface,” the suit states.

They suffered various injuries, including burns to their skin and throats, compromised airways, damaged vision, soft-tissue damage to major joints and psychological injuries. Asbestos, a carcinogenic material that insulated the pipe that discharged the steam, puts them at risk of death from a malignancy of the pleural cavity called mesothelioma, the suit alleges.

The suit seeks hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for the five workers’ injuries and lost earning potential, along with $500,000 in punitive damages.

The most severely burned workers, Antonio Flores and Ryan Dowland, both Thermal West employees, filed the first suit in January. They were hospitalized for an extended period and are still undergoing treatment for “permanent disfiguring burns and scarring” and other injures. A third group of workers is expected to file another lawsuit in the coming months.

bmaffly@sltrib.com

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