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Miller Park ruling apparently a record By KENNETH R. LAMKE of the Journal Sentinel staff Last Updated: Dec. 1, 2000 A jury on Friday awarded $99,250,000 in damages in the Miller Park accident - apparently a record for a personal injury case in Wisconsin - and found Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of America 97% negligent in the tragic mishap that killed three ironworkers. In a unanimous verdict, the jurors found Lampson International Ltd. only 3% negligent in the accident, which also caused $100 million in damage at the ballpark construction site and forced a one-year delay in the opening of the Milwaukee Photo/Gary Porter Widows of the three ironworkers killed in the Miller Park Brewers baseball stadium. accident comfort each other as the verdict is read. Three employees of Lampson who operated the IRONWORKERS KILLED firm's "Big Blue" crane - Allen Watts, Fred Flowers and Steve Aldrich - were found not to have been negligent. Victor Grotlisch, the Mitsubishi site supervisor and a target in the trial, was not named in the verdict James Jeffrey William form given to the jury. Jurors declined to discuss Starr Wischer DeGrave Grotlisch or any other specific individuals when they talked with reporters after their verdict. VERDICT AT A GLANCE The $99.25 million jury award to the three widows The verdict came on the third day of jury of the ironworkers killed in the Miller Park crane collapse breaks down this way: deliberations and at the end of the seventh week of the emotional and contentious trial. • $94 million in punitive damages against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of America Jeffrey Wischer, William DeGrave and Jerome • $4.2 million, or $1.4 million to each widow, for Starr were killed when Big Blue crashed while the pain and suffering of the ironworkers lifting a 450-ton roof piece in high winds on July • $1.05 million, or $350,000 to each widow, for loss of companionship 14, 1999. In its verdict, the jury: Mitsubishi, the American subdivision of the Japanese conglomerate, is the subcontractor in • Decided Mitsubishi was 97% negligent in the accident and Lampson International Ltd. 3% charge of building the radial retractable ballpark negligent. roof. Lampson leased the crane and the crew to • Ruled in favor of Lampson, and against Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi, on disputed contract issues, including one that requires Mitsubishi to pay After the accident, the three ironworkers' widows Lampson's liabilities in the trial. That appears to sued Mitsubishi and Lampson for negligence. mean that Lampson's 3% share of the $5.25 million in compensatory damages, or $157,500, must also be paid by Mitsubishi. • Found that Lampson employees Allen Watts, Fred Flowers and Steve Aldrich - the crew that operated the Big Blue crane - were not negligent. After the accident, the three ironworkers' widows sued Mitsubishi and Lampson for negligence. From the start of the trial on Oct. 16, Robert Habush, the widows' lead attorney, pressed the widows' case against Mitsubishi and Grotlisch and only secondarily blamed Lampson. "We are completely happy and satisfied for the widows," Habush said after the verdict. The attorneys for Mitsubishi declined several requests for comment. But they told Circuit Judge Dominic Amato that they would not waive their right to take the standard amount of time, in this case until Dec. 28, to file so-called "motions after verdict." Such motions must be filed before any appeal can be made to a higher court. Don Carlson, the lead attorney for Lampson, said he was "extremely gratified by the verdict." He said he was disappointed that the 16-member jury found Lampson even 3% negligent, but he noted that another provision of the jurors' ruling means that Lampson won't have to pay its 3% of the $5.25 million in compensatory damages.From the start of the trial on Oct. 16, Robert Habush, the widows' lead attorney, pressed the widows' case against Mitsubishi and Grotlisch and only secondarily blamed Lampson. Because the jury decided in Lampson's favor on all disputed contract issues between the two firms, Mitsubishi must honor the contract provision that makes it responsible for any liabilities Lampson incurred on the project, Carlson said. The verdict also pleased the widows. "I think that this puts some closure, and I hope this sends a message," Ramona Dulde-Starr said. "We're the greatest country in the world, and accountability in the workplace" is vital. Patricia Wischer and Marjorie DeGrave said they looked forward to spending more time with their children now that the trial was over. Wischer said she expected the jurors to find Mitsubishi negligent but didn't know how much they would award in damages. She wore her late husband's wedding ring on a chain around her neck. DeGrave said, "I'm certain that what happened today, that that will reflect for years to come on the safety of families out there." Amato appeared to hold back tears as he told the jurors after reading the verdict that "the minds of 16 people of this community are better than the minds of any one judge." Mitsubishi's attorneys had tried during the trial to get Amato to remove himself from the case, but he refused. Mitsubishi's attorneys had harshly criticized Amato during the trial as being biased in the widows' favor. Habush called Amato "a very emotional man" and a "great human being." Habush declined to comment on what fees his firm would receive. Habush represents Wischer and DeGrave; attorney David Lowe represents Dulde-Starr. When Habush and Lowe obtained $7 million in pretrial settlements in the case earlier this year, they took the standard fee of one-third of the settlement amount. In his closing argument to the jury on Tuesday, Habush said he thought Mitsubishi was 90% responsible for the mishap and that Lampson and its crane crew were perhaps just 10% at fault. During the trial, witnesses for the widows blamed Grotlisch for running an authoritarian, sloppy job site and especially for proceeding with the lift, knowing that it was windy that day. Grotlisch admitted under examination by Habush that he had "dropped the ball" the day of the accident and that he had no idea what effect the wind would have on the roof piece being lifted. That was because nobody at the site did so-called "wind-sail" calculations, which are commonly done for crane lifts in windy conditions. They are designed to predict the effect of the wind on the load being raised. Employees of Mitsubishi and Lampson each testified that they thought the other firm was doing the wind-sail estimates. Lampson employees maintained that they explained to Mitsubishi officials that Mitsubishi would be responsible for doing them. Jurors said that Mitsubishi's failure to see that wind-sail calculations were done was the main reason they found the firm 97% negligent. Habush also suggested during the trial that Grotlisch attempted to cover up his responsibility in the accident. Testimony showed that Grotlisch went to the Mitsubishi construction trailer shortly after the accident and that someone unplugged the firm's weather computer there, leaving no record of the wind speeds measured at the time of the accident. For his part, Mitsubishi attorney John Bell contended in his closing argument that the accident was not the result I'm certain that what of any intentional misconduct by Mitsubishi, and that a happened today, that "chain of events" led to the tragedy. that will reflect for Although conceding that the wind had an impact, years to come on the Mitsubishi witnesses during the trial cited less-than- safety of families out ideal ground conditions, crane crawler movements made there. by the Lampson crew, and the way the crane was assembled as contributing factors to the accident. - Marjorie DeGrave, widow of ironworker William Charles Morin, Mitsubishi's chief expert witness, said DeGrave the accident would not have happened if Lampson had not used a weak bronze spacer in the kingpin assembly of the crane. Another Lampson crane, a sister to Big Blue but not assembled with a spacer, would have withstood the effects of wind on the load, Morin said. Jurors said they didn't think the spacer was a factor in causing the accident at all. Lampson witnesses defended the integrity of the design, manufacture and assembly of Big Blue. They said the spacer met code strength requirements, and that even with a stronger spacer, the accident still would have occurred because Big Blue, rather than breaking apart, would have entirely tipped over as a result of the wind blowing the roof piece. The $100 million in property damage from the accident was covered by insurance obtained by the stadium board and was not an issue in the trial.
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