The widow of an electrician who died in a crane accident at Veolia Energy’s Schuylkill steam plant in Grays Ferry, Pa., will receive $17 million, in what is believed to be the largest wrongful-workplace-death settlement in Philadelphia County history.
On June 23, 2011, Adam Nowak Sr. died when a 300-pound iron hook, which fell from “a negligently maintained and operated” crane, struck and killed him, the lawsuit alleges. Nowak, 45, had been working at the steam plant for several months to help install new electrical equipment.
Robert Mongeluzzi, founder of the law firm that represented Nowak’s widow, said the record settlement was “fueled by the tragic death of a great man, an incredible worker, husband, father and union brother and his phenomenal family, all of whom had suffered the enormous loss of his impactful presence in their lives.”
Mongeluzzi noted that Nowak left behind five children, including a 2-year-old daughter who was born with profound hearing loss.
The lawsuit contends that Nowak’s death was the result of Veolia Energy’s negligence. “Each and every level of Veolia management and personnel consciously disregarded workplace safety,” the Nowak estate asserts in court documents.
Nowak had been working for a contractor at the Schuylkill steam plant, which is a 163-megawatt co-generation facility that houses a combustion turbine and an extraction/condensing steam turbine, according to Veolia Energy’s website.
In the moments leading up to his death, Nowak had rigged a toolbox to a crane so the crane operator could lower the toolbox into the basement, according to the lawsuit. As the operator raised the toolbox, he activated the auxiliary crane, and the auxiliary crane cable snapped when the crane block went too high. That caused the crane block to plummet 60 feet, striking Nowak, “tearing a hole in his head and dismembering his arm.” Nowak died later in the day.
According to Nowak’s estate in the lawsuit, “There is substantial evidence that Veolia intentionally disabled the safety limit switch” that could have prevented the fatal accident. The lawsuit claims that the steam plant ignored recommendations to replace the limit switch after a similar crane accident in 2004.
“Veolia would not spend the $30,000 necessary to upgrade these critical safety devices,” Mongeluzzi said. “Veolia wouldn't pay the bill, and Adam paid with his life."
The lawsuit asserts that Veolia Energy’s crane safety manual was “a sham,” and claims that crane operators never received the manual or followed its guidelines.
"This accident did not result from a momentary lapse of inattention,” said David Kwass, a partner in the Philadelphia-based law firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky PC. “Our investigation revealed that Veolia had failed to inspect its cranes thousands of times before the accident, proving that this was not an unforeseeable act, but rather was predictable based on their utter lack of safety inspections."
In a statement to EHS Today, Boston-based Veolia Energy North America said Nowak’s death “was a terrible tragedy.”
“We hope this settlement is a step forward in the ongoing healing process for Mr. Nowak’s family,” the company said. “Veolia’s safety culture and our ongoing commitment to safety are best reflected by our industry-leading safety record. However, we remain committed to continually improving. Through ongoing training and employee commitment, we remain focused on eliminating any safety incidents in the workplace."
The lawsuit also names the general contractor, Northbrook, Ill.-based Kenny Construction Co., and the service and repair contractor for the crane, Sissco Material Handling Equipment.