WASHINGTON – A New Jersey contractor who suffered severe head injuries when he fell into a construction pit at the Patuxent Naval Air Station cannot hold the government accountable for the 1999 accident, a federal judge said.
The Tuesday ruling by U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow was the second against Roy Weakland, who had sued the government, the lead contractor on the project and a civilian employee of another contractor who supervised the air field.
But Chasanow entered summary judgment in favor of the lead contractor in 2003, and Tuesday she tossed out the rest of the case, saying the government was not responsible for a safety lapse of the firm it had hired.
Weakland suffered memory loss and depends on Social Security disability because he cannot hold a job, his attorneys said Wednesday, but they could not say if there would be an appeal.
“It’s a serious injury,” said attorney Bruce Zeidman of Weakland’s condition. “I’m unhappy.”
The case began in September 1999 when Weakland’s employer, Delphi Engineering Inc., was hired as a subcontractor on a “hover pit” that was to be used to test vertical takeoff aircraft at the base. The 12-foot-deep pit required special heat-resistant concrete that had to be monitored around the clock.
Weakland monitored the pit overnight and part of his jobs included periodically walking around the pit during his shift, according to court documents.
But the pit was not lighted because of concerns that light could interfere with pilots’ vision. There were barricades around the pit, but they had been taken down to prepare for an approaching hurricane and were not put back up by the time Weakland showed up for work.
His first night passed uneventfully, but on the morning after his second night he was found “staggering around the work site in a listless, sleepy demeanor,” Chasanow wrote.
Weakland does not remember what happened, but investigators found a baseball hat, blood and hair inside the pit. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured skull, brain swelling and a collapsed lung.
Weakland’s lawsuit against lead contractor R.R. Gregory Corp. — which hired the firm which hired Delphi — was thrown out in 2003 because Chasanow said it was effectively his employer. Under state law, an employer could only be liable for worker’s compensation.
Chasanow this week rejected Weakland’s claim that the government was responsible for the safety of the construction site it controlled. But “the mere fact that the government reserved the right to inspect the work of the contractors,” she wrote, does not make it responsible if the contractor fails to provide a safe work space every day.
The final defendant, Jim Fletcher, worked as an airfield facilities specialist, but Chasanow said he owed no legal duty to Weakland because Weakland knew the job was dangerous and took it anyway.
“He knew and appreciated the risks inherent in working at the hover pit at night without lights,” Chasanow wrote.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the government was “very pleased” with the ruling.
-30- CNS 02-09-05