Companies appeal fines in Bonney Lake barrier collapse

The silence surrounding the sudden deaths of Bonney Lake residents Josh, Vanessa and their infant son Hudson Ellis in a construction accident last April was broken Oct. 19 when the state Department of Labor and Industries levied fines against the four construction companies involved in the state Route 410 expansion project.

A concrete saw sits idle after the barrier it was cutting fell onto Angeline Road.

Oct. 27 8:45 a.m. update: L&I confirmed this morning that WHH Nisqually, one of four contractors associated with the SR 410 bridge expansion project in Bonney Lake that killed the Ellis family, appealed to their share of the fines the state department levied against all four companies on Oct. 19.

Staton Companies and Hamilton Construction/American Concrete have also appealed the fines.

Highmark has not yet appealed the fines. The deadline for this is Nov. 4.

Original post:

Editor’s note: According to the state Department of Labor and Industries, Hamilton Construction and American Concrete are the same company, and both names are used in various police reports, court files and other documents. For clarity, Hamilton Construction and American Concrete will be referred to as Hamilton Construction/American Concrete.

The silence surrounding the sudden deaths of Bonney Lake residents Josh, Vanessa and their infant son Hudson Ellis in a construction accident last April was broken Oct. 19 when the state Department of Labor and Industries levied fines against the four construction companies involved in the state Route 410 expansion project. WHH Nisqually, the prime contractor, and subcontractors Highmark Concrete Contractors, Staton Companies and Hamilton Construction/American Concrete were all involved in expanding the SR 410 overpass over Angeline Road and installing a pedestrian walkway when a concrete barrier fell onto the road below, killing the Ellis family as they drove underneath the overpass.

In total, the companies were fined nearly $87,000.

Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for L&I, said there was nothing unusually high or low about the fines the department laid against the four companies.

Labor and Industries’ jurisdiction, Fischer said, expands only to worker and workplace safety, which means the Ellis’ deaths were not factored into the fines levied against each company.

At time of press, Staton and Hamilton were the only two companies to appeal these citations and fines within the standard 15 day appeal period.

Appealed citations and fines are handled two ways at Labor and Industries; the department employs its own appeals staff, which could handle the appeal and resume the investigation, or it can be handled by the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.

Fischer said it isn’t known whether the appeals will be handled internally or externally.

Fines paid to Labor and Industries are put into a worker compensation fund and are used to help workers or their families recoup from workplace injuries or deaths.

Because the Ellis family was not employees of the construction companies working on the project, their estate and surviving family members will not receive worker compensation.

Staton, WHH Nisqually and Highmark could not be reached for comment.

Hamilton Construction/American Concrete declined to comment.

The math behind the money

Staton Companies received the heftiest fines for three different violations; two “serious” violations and one “willful serious” violation.

According to Fischer, “serious” and “willful serious” violations start out the same, with a maximum penalty of $7,000, set by state law.

From there, Labor and Industries takes the size of the company they’re fining into consideration.

Fines are reduced for smaller companies. For example, Staton employes between 26 and 100 workers, which means the department reduced Staton’s three violations from $7,000 to $4,200.

Labor and Industries then factors in a company’s violation history. According to the department, Staton has a below-average previous inspection history, “because they had previous inspections with willful, repeat, or failure to abate violations, or inspections with two or more serious violations,” Fischer said.

Staton was cited with three serious violations in 2012 while working on removing an old bridge in Marysville, although L&I noted the violations were immediately corrected.

These previous violations added another $700 to each of Staton’s serious violations, bringing those totals to $4,900.

According to the department’s citation document, one of those fines is for not ensuring “that workers carrying on a demolition operation prevented exposure to danger to persons working on a lower level.”

On the morning of April 13, there were two flaggers on Angeline Road while the concrete barrier was being cut on the overpass above.

The other violation was for not ensuring “the concrete barrier… was secured or braced to prevent collapse or failure during the cutting of the concrete barrier.”

After determining if a violation is serious, Labor and Industries then looked at whether the violation was wilfully committed.

“If it’s found to be willful, then the penalty is multiplied by ten,” Fischer said, which explains how Staton’s “willful serious” violation fine jumped to $49,000.

Staton’s willful violation came with two instances.

Labor and Industries determined in their investigation that Staton did not follow the procedure laid out in the demolition plan drawn up by Jonathan Carlton, a Staton employee.

According to the demolition plan, the concrete barrier was supposed to be cut vertically, separating the concrete barrier into manageable chunks, around 10 feet long.

The barrier would then be cut horizontally at the base of the barrier, separating the barrier from the bridge. The concrete saw would leave some concrete at the outer edge of the barrier connected to the bridge, keeping the barrier attached to the bridge.

An excavator, equipped with a “thumb” for grabbing these barrier chunks, would grab hold of each section and tip it over the outer edge of the bridge. This would snap the remaining concrete connecting the barrier section and the bridge. The excavator would then tip the barrier back over the bridge and remove it.

But according to police reports, the concrete barrier was cut horizontally first, and it was planned to be cut vertically later.

It was during the second or third pass of the concrete saw going horizontally along the base of the barrier when the barrier fell, before any vertical cuts were made. Witness reports vary as to how many passes the concrete saw made.

Additionally, a construction worker told police the wrong excavator was brought to the construction site. This excavator did not have a “thumb” which meant it was unable grab the concrete chunks as planned.

The other instance of a willful violation was for failing to provide the destruction plan to Hamilton Construction/American Concrete, the subcontractor that Staton hired to perform the concrete cutting, according to an Labor and Industries press release.

Additionally, the press release stated Staton had concerns about the barrier falling down while it was being cut, but continued with the demolition.

Other violations

Hamilton Construction/American Concrete received a total of three “serious” citations and a $14,700 fine.

The violations for Hamilton Construction/American Concrete were the same as Staton’s, although L&I determined none of the violations were willful.

WHH Nisqually received a total of two “serious” citations and a $8,400 fine.

The first violation was for not following the demolition plan and not being informed of the demolition plan, similar to Hamilton Construction/American Concrete’s first citation.

The second was for not protecting the flaggers on the road below the overpass.

Highmark Concrete received one “serious” violation with a $4,900 fine.

The citation was for not following Washington Administrative Codes for safe workplace standards, exposing the flaggers on Angeline Road to danger and not securing the concrete barrier.

 

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