Hancock Lawsuits Settled

Chicago Tribune, Metro North Shore February 2, 2006

By Lorene Yue, Tribune staff reporter

$75 million agreed to in ‘02 disaster that killed 3, hurt 7

Seven injured people and the families of three women killed in a 2002 scaffolding accident at the John Hancock Center will get a total of $75.2 million in a settlement of their lawsuits against the owner of the skyscraper and other companies.

The settlement was announced Wednesday morning, the day the case was scheduled to go to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. The amount will be divided among victims of the March 9, 2002, accident and their family members.

It is the third-largest settlement of a personal injury lawsuit in Illinois since 1986, according to the Jury Verdict Reporter, which tracks the outcome of jury trials.

An emotional Mattie West, mother of Nanatta Cameron, who was crushed to death in her Nissan Maxima, learned of the settlement Wednesday. She declined to comment and said the news had “brought up too much.”

Michael Carbonara, who while attempting to free the women from their car fell and injured his arm, called the verdict bittersweet. “Three lives are gone because of this,” he said.

Robert Clifford, a co-lead counsel for the victims, said the accident “should have never happened.”

Those who contributed toward the settlement include Hancock Center residents and owners of its commercial space as well as makers and operators of the scaffold that broke loose on a gusty Saturday afternoon and sent down a deadly rain of metal debris from 42 floors above.

Beeche Systems Inc. of Scotia, N.Y. which custom made the scaffold, and AMS Architectural Technologies, Inc. of Illinois which operated the scaffold, each contributed $26 million, the largest amount from a single defendant. AMS Architectural Technologies Inc. is no longer in business, said a lawyer for Clifford Law offices, which along with Corboy & Demetrio represented 10 victims.

Shorenstein Co., which owns the commercial part of the John Hancock Center, allocated $8.6 million to the settlement.

“Closure is good for everybody,” said Bruce Duffield, Shorenstein’s lawyer. “We are gratified that they will receive substantial compensation for this tragedy.”

Other defendants paying in the settlement include: McGinnis Chen AIA Inc. of San Francisco, the 175 East Delaware Homeowners Association, Fort Miller Group and Eckland Consultants.

An additional $1.6 million will be collected from 11 defendants to pay for property damages. Of that amount, Chicago will receive $128,000 for costs it incurred due to the accident.

Cameron, 39, was stopped on Chestnut Street along the Hancock Center’s south side when the 100-foot-long scaffolding buffeted by nearly 60 mph winds ripped loose and broke 66 windows before it smashed her car.

Passengers Michelle and Peggy Whittaker were injured. Peggy Whittaker suffered brain and spinal cord injuries that rendered her a quadriplegic. She died in July.

Melissa Cook, 29, and her cousin, Jill Nelson, 28, who were in a car in the next lane, also were killed by the scaffolding.

Nelson, her mother, Betty Semplinski, and her aunt, Linda Demo, also Cook’s mother, had come to Chicago to celebrate Cook’s 30th birthday. Cook was driving her Honda Civic, with Nelson on the passenger side. Their mothers were in the back seat when their car was crushed. Semplinski suffered a severe leg fracture.

Family members of Nelson and Cook declined to comment or could not be reached.

Carbonara said that he had avoided downtown for more than a decade because of agoraphobia and panic attacks but went to Lord & Taylor the day of the accident to shoe shop with his daughter for her wedding. They were there about 20 minutes, he said, before hearing a sound he first thought was the escalator collapsing.

“I ran outside thinking somebody needed help, and I then saw something I’ll never forget,” he said, remembering the mess of metal and glass.

Two other people at the scene who suffered minor injuries and post-traumatic stress, Kim Bohstedt and Elyce Hanna, will share in the settlement. They could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Scaffolding was in place on three sides of the Hancock Center to allow workers to recaulk the building’s windows and clean the facade. No one was working on the day of the accident. The National Weather Service had issued a high-wind advisory for the city.

City of Chicago officials later said the operator should have heeded the manufacturer’s specifications that called for lashing the scaffold on the roof or at the base of the building when severe weather was forecast, as it has been on that Saturday.

The scaffold operator, AMS Architectural Technologies Inc., said at the time that it had used the equipment properly but that its design was flawed.

Lawyers for the victims contended other negligent actions contributed to the accident, including the size of the wheels used in the scaffolding’s mooring. They also said designers listed the scaffold’s weight as 7,000 pounds when it actually weighted 10.000 pounds.

“There were so many different places where this accident could have been avoided,” Tom Demetrio, co-lead counsel, said Wednesday. “Had the wheels been proper, this event could have been avoided. Had the scaffolding been where it should have been, clearly this would have been avoided. Had the building and those individuals in charge of this whole scaffolding taken the heed of those people who warned that morning that the scaffolding was dangling and hitting against the building, this tragedy would have been avoided.”

Clifford and co-lead counsel Tom Demetrio said scaffold designers substituted 2-inch light-weight metal wheels when the typical 4-inch heavy steel wheels used in the mechanism that anchors a scaffold to the roof were inhibiting the scaffold’s side-to-side movement.

As the outrigger was buffeted by high winds, the smaller wheels were unable to take the stress, and they broke off, allowing the scaffold to swing free, Clifford said.

In the wake of the accident, Chicago officials in July 2002 passed an ordinance requiring all scaffold operators on downtown buildings 40 feet and higher to complete a safety course. In addition, the law required scaffolding to be secured during bad weather and when work was not taking place.

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