A mining expert witness advises on a case involving mine workers who were injured when a crane toppled. Plaintiff was working at a mine when a crane collapsed at the work site. The crane was moving a tube in a clockwise direction with the front crawler of the crane in a westerly direction from atop wooden mats placed on soil. This procedure, only in a counterclockwise direction, had been done several times previously from the lift pad inside the wye. Another worker was holding onto a “tag line” attached to the lowest end of the tube when it started to tighten up, and he looked down to see if that crawler was traveling back to the east. It wasn’t moving. The tube was rebounding from its most westerly position. Numerous reports state that the crane failed, the tube was dropped, and the wooden mats sank into the soil.
Plaintiff and several others were injured. Plaintiff was struck by cables or other pieces of equipment. He suffered multiple fractures, lost teeth, eye damage and a pulmonary contusion. He underwent multiple orthopedic procedures and was hospitalized for 10 days before being discharged to a rehabilitation facility.
The incident is the subject of several civil lawsuits.
Question(s) For Expert Witness
- Which parties were liable for the incident?
Expert Witness Response
Expert witnesses in prior settled civil actions had opinions that placed blame of every party to those settled civil actions. Each expert witness report cited actions and inactions by all parties, except for whom they were retained. Responsibility was shared between parties in all expert reports; although, no one expert witness apportioned blame.
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) concluded that the crane staff was the responsible party and wrote violations of MSHA regulations.
The operator and owner of the mine did engage contractors to perform specific tasks. The contractors were responsible for a specific task, with each acknowledging in their respective agreement that they were capable, qualified and knew the technical requirement necessary to perform their specific task, and if there were unknown items, then they agreed to obtain them.
One contractor was to furnish “supervision necessary to effect all civil work…structural erection… required to provide a complete functional system…”
The mine owner did not contract out the task of obtaining railroad approval for the crane to cross the railroad tracks to access the lift pad inside the wye. Given the owner’s relationship with the railroad, it was the most qualified entity to obtain the consent. In developing the plan that the railroad approved, the contractors participated in the development and execution plan.
The contractors communicated between themselves and with owner. The owner did not function as the “switch board operator,” requiring that all issues and questions be routed through them. The owner hired qualified entities to perform a task that each were deemed skilled to perform, and expected them to perform without its direct supervision. Contractors were expected to coordinate and cooperate among themselves. The owner’s role was to help each do their respective task. Its role was not to supervise each entity.
The owner relied on the expertise and professionalism of the contractors, and expected each one to perform as agreed under their agreement contract. As mine operator and owner and as project manager it is not uncommon at coal mine operations to find the right person to do the job and to let them do it and then to assist however asked or needed.
There are conflicting opinions contained in the expert witness reports regarding the causes and or contributing factors of the incident. One speculates that inappropriate rigging of the crane, which did not affect prior lifts, caused the crane to list off vertical and was compounded by actions by the tugger on the ground, together caused the crane to tilt and fall and resulted in foundation failure. If true, the owner had no control over those actions and is not a fault.
The incident pad inside the wye had been used several times in the prior weeks without an incident. Reportedly, at least one lift was of comparable weight as the tube during the incident. The owner had no reason to believe that the soil under the crane pad was inadequate.
Supervisors, employed by the contractors, at the incident site had firsthand knowledge of conditions on and around the incident pad, and had a duty to alert everyone if conditions could result in danger to those involved. One expert witness report states that excessive shimming to keep the crane level was evidence that a contractor should have known was an unsafe condition before the incident. Another states that shimming is a routine task when one is moving a loaded crane. Again, the owner contracted with qualified entities and rightfully relied upon each to perform their task professionally and accurately. Construction at coal mine sites is not like other commercial construction projects. Experts have cited many sources as to how a project should be managed by key officials with defined responsibilities. At a mine site, the owner’s project manager generally has day-to-day mine operation responsibility, in addition to those of project manager, and is not at the construction site every hour with the contractors. If the owner’s personnel have the time, equipment and expertise, then the owner would not need contractors.
The Contractors had a responsible party on site when they were performing their task under their respective agreement.
Accidents happen. Accidents are unplanned events. Just like with your last car accident, if you had changed one thing, then the accident would not have happened where it did and when it did. The testimony regarding this incident indicates that all involved had an opportunity to do something differently. Accidents do happen and usually there is more than one reason, and it is not always someone’s fault.
The expert spent more than four decades as a coal miner, mining engineer, project manager, company executive and a mine safety regulator.