Family of an Amazon worker killed by Edwardsville tornado sues
The family of a man killed when a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville filed a lawsuit Monday, claiming the retail giant put workers at risk by ignoring severe weather warnings and insisting they work until minutes before the tornado hit the building late last year.
They are also suing the developer and the construction company that built the warehouse, arguing the building was constructed without adequate shelter and walls that couldn’t withstand high winds.
“Amazon was more concerned during its peak delivery season with keeping their production lines running when this facility could have easily shut down for the day,” said attorney Jack Casciato, who represents the family of Austin McEwen. “Workers … could have been directed home and the next morning, only losing perhaps 12 hours, could have resumed the work, and a lot of lives and injuries would have been avoided.”
Alice and Randy McEwen filed the suit on behalf of their son, who was one of six people killed at the warehouse when severe storms hit the Metro East on Dec. 10. McEwen died when part of the warehouse's roof collapsed.
The 26-year-old loved hunting, hockey, baseball and traveling with his girlfriend of five years, his mother said. He worked as a delivery driver for another company that hired workers to drive Amazon vehicles.
The company “placed profits first instead of the safety of our son and the other families who lost loved ones,” Alice McEwen said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “We hope, along with the other families who lost loved ones, to get the answers we deserve.”
The lawsuit “misunderstands key facts,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in an email. Severe weather watches are issued frequently in southern Illinois, and it’s not common for businesses to close down, she said.
“The truth is that this was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely,” Nantel said. “We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued, and they worked to move people to safety as quickly as possible.”
According to the lawsuit filed in the 3rd Judicial Circuit Court in Madison County, Amazon employees who operated the warehouse should have been monitoring the weather more carefully, as meteorologists were warning of severe storms as early as the day before.
Amazon officials didn’t evacuate the building, didn’t teach workers where to go during dangerous weather and didn’t provide a basement or other adequate shelter against tornadoes, even though the building is in a place where tornadoes happen frequently, according to the complaint.
Amazon bosses told employees to work until minutes before the tornado hit the warehouse, the plaintiffs allege. Shortly before the workers were killed, they were told by supervisors to take shelter inside a bathroom.
Amazon officials intend to dispute those claims, Nantel wrote.
The suit also names Missouri developer Tristar and Illinois construction company Contegra as defendants.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the warehouse collapse.
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge