Family sues contractor over Valdez worker's death

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001

VALDEZ (AP) -- The family of a man who died when his truck went over a cliff at the Valdez pipeline terminal has filed a lawsuit accusing a pipeline contractor of gross negligence.

Patty Barnes filed the suit Jan. 24 in Superior Court against Houston-NANA, maintenance contractor for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

Barnes' husband, Jerry, 51, died last fall when the truck he was driving went over a cliff. Investigators found problems with the brakes.

Barnes is seeking an unspecified amount of actual and punitive damages for herself and her daughter Nicole, a third-grader.

Barnes' attorney, Richard Haggart of Anchorage, told the Valdez Vanguard only Houston/NANA was named in the suit because Alaska law prohibits Barnes from suing Alyeska, her husband's employer.

''You basically can't sue your employer,'' Haggart said. ''You are limited to the workers compensation benefits, which are extremely minimal.

''You can sue a third party,'' Haggart said. ''Far and away, Houston/NANA are the people who messed up.''

Warren Christian, president of Houston Contracting Co., and managing partner of the Houston/NANA joint venture, said he wouldn't comment until he had seen a copy of the lawsuit.

Jerry Barnes worked at the Valdez Marine Terminal for 14 years. He died Aug. 16 when the dump truck he was driving rolled over a 50-foot cliff off Snake Road, which links the powerhouse and administration building areas at the terminal. He was hauling gravel for a parking lot expansion.

Alyeska had closed that road to large truck traffic in October 1999.

After the accident, investigators found that brakes on five of the six wheels of the 12-ton Kenworth dump truck didn't work. With almost no braking, Barnes apparently couldn't slow the truck enough to make a turn on the steep road.

According to investigators, the truck had been inspected six times in the nine months prior to the accident, including a required annual state inspection in November 1999. But none of the records noted any inspection or adjustment of the brakes.

''According to the report by the Kenworth mechanic, the problem with the brakes didn't happen overnight. It took a long time for them to become inoperative. This was something that was ignored and missed on multiple occasions by the shop,'' lawyer Haggart said.

Investigations were conducted by Alyeska, the Valdez Police, pipeline regulators, and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In November, the Joint Pipeline Office found the vehicle maintenance facility did not adequately document maintenance work on vehicles, that vehicles in need of repairs were mixed with vehicles considered ready to use. The investigators also found there was no system to make sure qualified drivers were operating vehicles and heavy equipment. Barnes didn't have a commercial drivers' license.

The state OSHA office issued citations against Alyeska and Houston/NANA last month, fining Alyeska $35,000 and the contractor $14,000.

In the citations, the agency said Alyeska allowed employees with nominal experience to operate heavy equipment and failed to have equipment checked for safe operating condition.

The company was also cited for failing to maintain the brakes on the dump truck, not posting warning signs on the restricted road, and failing to notify employees of the road restriction.

Houston/NANA was cited for failing to control the use of unsafe equipment. The contractor was also cited for not maintaining the dump truck's brakes and tires in safe operating condition.

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