A Harris County jury awarded $17.72 million Thursday to the family of a construction worker who drowned in 2014 while working on the pedestrian bridge to Baylor University’s McLane Stadium.
Jurors in 151st State District Court in Houston deliberated about six hours over two days before placing 100 percent of the blame for Jose Dario Suarez’s death on Austin Bridge and Road Co., the general contractor hired to build the bridge.
“I hope this verdict will send a message to all companies, not only construction companies, to properly train their workers and supervisors and not prioritize speed and profits over safety of workers and people,” said Houston attorney Vuk Vujasinovic, who represents Suarez’s wife, two daughters, son and mother in the lawsuit.
The jury awarded $5 million in damages for Suarez’s pre-death pain and suffering as he drowned; $1 million for each of his three children; about $8 million for his wife; and $2 million in punitive damages.
Vujasinovic said he asked the jury for $27 million in damages.
Austin attorney Larry G. Black, who represents Austin Bridge and Road, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Baylor was named as a defendant in the original pleadings, but 151st State District Judge Mike Engelhart dismissed the school from the lawsuit in June.
The remaining defendants included Flexifloat Construction Systems; Austin Commercial Inc.; Austin Bridge and Road; Derr and Isbell Construction Inc.; Flintco; Genie Industries Inc.; Terex Corp.; Robishaw Engineering; and Core Safety.
Suarez, 55, of Manor, drowned Jan. 28, 2014, after a hydraulic lift he and another worker, Terry Watson, were strapped to rolled from a modular barge into the Brazos River as the men worked on the bridge.
Watson was able to free himself and swam to the surface, where he was pulled from the cold river.
In jury summations Wednesday morning, Vujasinovic asked the jury to place 100 percent of the blame on Austin Bridge and Road and to find no liability with the other defendants. That is what the jury did.
As evidence in the three-week trial played out, most of the companies tried to blame other defendants for the tragic death, Vujasinovic said.
“Lots of times people wonder why there are so many companies named as defendants in these type of cases,” Vujasinovic said. “As it turned out, everybody was pointing the finger at each other and sometimes it takes a trial like this to expose the bad actor.”
Vujasinovic had alleged that work crews made no attempt to rescue the two workers after the barge they were tethered to rolled into the river.
Not only did no one try to rescue the men, crews continued working while Suarez’s body lay on the bottom of the river because the $266 million project was four months behind schedule and time was of the essence, Vujasinovic alleged.
Suarez and Watson worked for Derr and Isbell Construction. Watson testified in a deposition that the water was “freezing cold” and “the deeper you went, the darker it got.”
According to court documents, Watson was under water for almost two minutes before he was able to free himself.
Waco police Officer Francisco Reyes testified at the trial that workers continued constructing the bridge as Suarez’s body lay on the river bottom.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Derr and Isbell $7,000 for failing to secure the lift to the barge on which it was sitting.
Watson testified in a deposition that he moved the boom lift from the center of the barge to the corner to give them better access to a work area. The lift was not chained down, as regulations require, according to court documents.