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LEGAL EXPERTS SEE MANY POSSIBLE LAWSUITS ARISING FROM ACCIDENT

Jul 16, 1999

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Many parties, including Brewers, stadium board are among potential targets

By STEVE SCHULTZE

Journal Sentinel staff

The Miller Park construction accident offers fertile ground for lawsuits, legal experts said Thursday.

The accident victims and their families would be the likely plaintiffs, but others might include various parties involved in building the $400 million stadium, including construction firms that could suffer financial penalties for not finishing on time, experts said.

The Milwaukee Brewers also could become a plaintiff, some lawyers suggested, based on only a general knowledge of what happened. Actual filing of suits could be weeks or months away.

No criminal charges have been filed, but legal experts, again speaking generally, said that is a possibility if negligence is found to have caused the crane crash.

"This is going to keep a lot of lawyers in Wisconsin very busy for a long time," said Peter Carstensen, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor.

Investigators and other experts in the days and weeks ahead will be looking to establish blame, something that could be the foundation of upcoming lawsuits.

The families of the three men killed in the accident will be eligible to receive worker's compensation death benefits equal to four years of pay. Under the worker's compensation law, families cannot sue those workers' employers. But others linked to the project -- for example, the Brewers, the stadium board and other firms involved in the construction -- could be fair game for lawsuits, the experts said.

Other prime lawsuit fodder:

Anyone associated with the manufacture, leasing or maintenance of Big Blue, the crane that's made by Neil F. Lampson Inc., of Kennewick, Wash. The design of the crane and questions of whether or not it was defective would be part of a product liability case, said Jim Yance, a product liability lawyer based in Mobile, Ala., who has handled a number of crane accident cases for victims.

Firms involved in using the crane, if it were determined to have been defective, also could be the focus of a lawsuit, he said. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries holds the contract for construction of the stadium's retractable roof, the part of the stadium Big Blue was working on when the accident happened.

"Was the design (of the crane) structurally adequate? Was the material defective" in the manufacture of the crane? asked Yance.

Those involved in operating the machine. Did they follow proper operating procedures as set out by federal workplace regulators?

Construction supervisors. Did they properly inspect the work site and crane before Wednesday's ill-fated lift?

"People who have inspecting duties -- should they have seen something?" asked Carstensen.

Carstensen also suggested that government regulators could become a focus of a possible case, if an inspector was negligent in carrying out his or her duties to ensure that the crane was in shape for the job.

But Yance said lawsuits going after government regulators are rare and unlikely because of the difficulty in linking a subpar inspection with an accident.

Local plaintiffs' lawyer Robert Habush offered a sharper-edged assessment than his legal colleagues: "My instinct tells me that someone screwed up." Potential losses related to the accident could be "staggering," Habush said.

Criminal charges would come into play only if District Attorney E. Michael McCann were to find serious misconduct by an individual or company involved, Carstensen said. He pointed out that McCann has been willing to charge companies criminally on occasion, something that's uncommon in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the U.S.

But massive litigation isn't necessarily inevitable, he said.

"Accidents do happen. It's possible that nobody was at fault here," Carstensen said.

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