Bridge construction

This 2014 photo shows work continuing on the pedestrian bridge leading to McLane Stadium at Baylor University.

A Houston appeals court has thrown out a $17.7 million jury verdict against the contractor directing work on a pedestrian bridge at Baylor University where a worker drowned.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston ruled Thursday that the worker’s family legally was barred from suing the contractor for negligence, because the worker was covered by worker’s compensation insurance through a program implemented by Baylor and its contractors. There also was no evidence of gross negligence by the contractor, the court said.

Austin Bridge & Road was the general contractor for the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Bridge that spanned the Brazos River from Baylor University to McLane Stadium. In 2014, Jose Dario Suarez, 55, drowned when the hydraulic lift to which he was strapped rolled off a barge and pulled him underwater.

In April 2016, a Harris County jury awarded the worker’s family $17.7 million. But the appeals court reversed the verdict and rendered judgment that the plaintiffs take nothing.

Jessica Barger, who represented the company on appeal, said the company is pleased with the court’s decision.

“This was a very sad accident, but the negligence claims never should have gone to a jury, and Mr. Suarez’s family did receive compensation through the insurance program,” Barger said.

Vuk Vujasinovic, who represents the Suarez family, said he will appeal the ruling.

“We are obviously disappointed with the decision and will continue to fight for this family to the fullest extent under the law,” Vujasinovic said Friday.

The jury awarded $5 million in damages for Suarez’s 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.

Baylor was named as a defendant in the original pleadings, but 151st State District Judge Mike Engelhart dismissed the school from the lawsuit.

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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