Work crews made no attempt to rescue two construction workers who rolled from a barge into the Brazos River while tethered to a lift, and they continued to work while Jose Dario Suarez’s body lay on the muddy river bottom, an attorney for Suarez’s family alleges in a recent motion.
Vuk Vujasinovic, a Houston attorney representing Suarez’s wife, two daughters, son and mother in a wrongful death lawsuit, also claims in the motion that construction company officials may have altered the accident scene after Suarez’s death.
Suarez, 55, of Manor, drowned Jan. 28, 2014, after a hydraulic lift he and Terry Watson were strapped to rolled from a modular barge into the Brazos River as the men worked on the pedestrian bridge linking the Baylor University campus to the new McLane Stadium.
Not only did no one try to rescue the men, crews continued working because the $266 million project was four months behind schedule and time was of the essence, Vujasinovic alleges in his motion.
“The fact that they kept working on the bridge even while the body was still in the river supports the family’s claim that the workers were being rushed to try to keep up with the schedule,” Vujasinovic said.
June 16 trial
The family’s wrongful death lawsuit is set for trial June 16 in 151st State District Court in Houston. Defendants include Baylor; 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.
Watson testified in a deposition that the water was “freezing cold” and “the deeper you went, the darker it got,” according to records filed in the case, which say Watson was under water for almost two minutes before he was able to free himself.
“When Mr. Watson surfaced, he was disoriented and swam around in a confused state before making it to a barge, where individuals on the barge pulled him out of the water,” a plaintiffs’ motion states. “Nobody went into the water to assist Mr. Watson.
“Mr. Suarez never surfaced. Nobody went into the water to assist Mr. Suarez because the water was ‘too cold.’ In fact, no attempt whatsoever was made to rescue Mr. Suarez as he drowned.”
The motion, quoting from a deposition by Waco police Officer Francisco Reyes, said workers continued constructing the bridge as Suarez’s body lay on the river bottom.
A spokeswoman for Baylor and attorneys for the other defendants did not return phone messages Friday.
Vujasinovic also alleges that the accident scene might have been altered because Austin Bridge and Road officials produced a photograph during the discovery process that showed a chain on the barge.
Waco police photographs of the scene do not show a chain on the barge, which should have been used to prevent the lift from rolling into the river, he said.
“We are wondering why a chain appears in Austin Bridge and Road pictures when the actual crime scene officer didn’t see one,” Vujasinovic said. “Either the crime scene technicians didn’t do their job right or someone put the chain down after the incident.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Suarez’s employers, Derr and Isbell, $7,000 for failing to secure the lift to the barge on which it was sitting.
Watson testified in his 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, Vujasinovic said.
Vujasinovic’s motion asks Judge Mike Engelhart to rule that maritime law governs the case because the work area was over a navigable waterway.
Such a designation could dramatically increase any damages awarded because the defendants would be liable for negligence instead of being liable only after a finding of gross negligence.
Engelhart has scheduled a hearing for March 30 to consider the motion, which the defendants oppose.