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Government, Politics & Issues

Amazon faces two new lawsuits over deadly tornado at Edwardsville warehouse

Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. Violent storms, some producing tornado activity, ripped through the Midwest on Friday night, killing at least two in the warehouse.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. The company now faces three lawsuits related to the deaths of six workers after the building was hit by a tornado.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Two more lawsuits have been filed against Amazon and the companies that oversaw the construction of the Amazon warehouse where six people died in a tornado in December in Edwardsville.

A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed on behalf of Deon January, the mother of the late DeAndre Morrow, according to a news release on Tuesday from the attorneys for January.

Morrow, 28, died when the warehouse walls and roof collapsed in an EF3 tornado packing winds of up to 150 mph on Dec. 10. The building is on Gateway Commerce Drive near the intersection of Interstate 255 and Interstate 270.

A previous wrongful-death lawsuit was filed earlier this year on behalf of Alice and Randy McEwen, the parents of 26-year-old Austin McEwen, who died in the tornado.

The attorneys for Morrow’s family include Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney from Tallahassee, Florida, who is known nationwide for representing the family of George Floyd in its civil suit against the city of Minneapolis.

Representatives from Amazon and the other defendants could not be reached for comment Tuesday night on the Morrow lawsuit. The other defendants are Contegra Construction Co., which has offices in Edwardsville and St. Charles, Missouri; Tristar Properties of St. Louis; Stock & Associates Consulting Engineers Inc. of Chesterfield, Missouri; St. Louis-based Gray Design Group; and McNealy Engineering of St. Louis.

Along with the 34-page lawsuit filed on behalf of Morrow’s mother, the attorneys said they filed a 37-page lawsuit against the same defendants on behalf of four delivery drivers who worked for Amazon contractors.

The drivers are Jamarco Hickman of Godfrey, Evan Jensen of Alton, Deontae Yancey of Godfrey and Jada Williams of Glen Carbon.

This lawsuit cites counts of negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Jensen wanted to leave the warehouse before the storm hit but “was threatened with termination” if he left the warehouse, the lawsuit alleges. Williams also wanted to leave but she also was threatened with termination if she left, according to the lawsuit.

All of the lawsuits have been filed in Madison County Court.

Fire Marshal’s tornado report

Lawyers for all of the plaintiffs have cited a report by a fire marshal from St. Louis County who went to the scene on Dec. 10 to make sure it was safe for first responders to enter the damaged building.

Fire Marshal Dan Bruno of the West County EMS and Fire noted in his report that columns “appeared to be ripped or torn from the base.” He said that the International Building Code requires columns to be “secured against uplift from wind loads…”

“Looking at the base of the columns more closely, I could find no weld or bolted connection at the base of any column, but only a bead of what appeared to be some sort of caulk around the column at the finished floor line,” Bruno wrote.

Last week, Contegra released a four-page statement to dispute statements by an attorney for the McEwen family that Bruno’s report suggests the warehouse was not built to code.

Edwardsville’s city code requires buildings be able to withstand 90 mph winds. The engineering firm that designed the warehouse does “not design structures to withstand EF-3” tornadoes, according to Contegra.

Contegra’s statement included the following points:

▪ The columns were welded into metal sleeves embedded in a concrete foundation. This design is “very commonly applied” in warehouse construction and “is an alternative to a bolted or welded baseplate connection.”

▪ The columns were ripped from their sleeves “as the result of tremendous tornadic wind forces.”

Bruno noted in his report that, “Any statements made in this narrative concerning the design of the structure are advisory only and will require further analysis by other professionals before any conclusions could be reached.”

Lawsuit allegations 

The lawsuits for Morrow’s family and the four drivers were filed by Crump and Patrick King of Alton and Robert Hilliard, Michael Richardson and Benjamin O’Connor of Hilliard Martinez Gonzales LLC of Corpus Christi, Texas.

“Amazon had numerous warnings and opportunities to put their employees’ safety first, but they chose their bottom line instead,” Crump said in his news release. “As a result, six people needlessly lost their lives and many others suffered injury and mental anguish that will likely last a lifetime. Amazon required their employees to work just moments before the tornado destroyed the fulfillment center, despite their pleas to seek shelter at home with their loved ones.”

While an Amazon representative couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, Kelly Nantel, the company’s director of national media relations, previously has made the following points:

▪ Amazon employees are fully trained on safety procedures and emergency preparedness.

▪ The Edwardsville warehouse had a designated area for sheltering in place during a storm. However, Nantel has said this area was not built any differently than the rest of the building and that it was not a shelter.

▪ Managers began moving people into the designated sheltering in place area when tornado sirens sounded shortly after 8 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2021.

▪ Quick action by managers “helped save a lot of lives.” The company welcomes all investigators to review what happened.

Crump made these arguments about Amazon in his news release about the allegations in the lawsuit:

▪ Failed “to timely inform individuals at the subject fulfillment center that a tornado was approaching so those individuals had adequate time to properly shelter or evacuate.”

▪ Failed “to have a basement shelter or actual shelter.”

▪ Failed “to implement proper safety procedures in the event of an evacuation or natural disaster and follow procedures while the natural disaster was unfolding.”

▪ Failed “to properly monitor inclement weather prior to the tornado hitting the fulfillment center.”

The four other persons who died in the tornado were Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, of Alton; Etheria S. Hebb, 34, of St. Louis; Larry E. Virden, 46, of Collinsville; and Kevin D. Dickey, 62, of Carlyle.

BND reporters Kelsey Landis and Teri Maddox contributed information for this article.

Mike Koziatek is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.