The family of a construction worker killed on a Baltimore excavation site in 2018 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and its subcontractor for alleged negligence.
Kyle Hancock of Glen Burnie was working on a sewer line near the Clifton Park pool on June 5, 2018, when a 15-foot trench caved in, burying him alive. Rescue workers struggled to find the 20-year-old worker, eventually pulling his body from the dirt about 10 hours after the collapse. An autopsy determined Hancock’s cause of death was asphyxia, the suit states.
Hancock’s mother, stepmother and sister filed the lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court, alleging the city and its subcontractor Sutton Building Solutions LLC neglected to follow safety regulations and failed to halt work despite recognizing it was being performed in an unsafe manner.
Deputy city solicitor Dana Moore declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday, saying that she had not received a copy of the complaint, filed Feb. 5. Sutton Building Solutions owner Keith Sutton and his attorney also declined to comment Monday.
Attorney Andrew Slutkin, who is representing the family, said the lawsuit seeks to give the family justice following an “horrific” experience.
“The complaint sets forth very clearly the multiple opportunities there were to prevent this," Slutkin said.
The excavation project was handled by Hancock’s employer R.F. Warder, a White Marsh-based mechanical contracting company hired by the city to perform repair and maintenance service on city plumbing and heating systems, and the designated minority contractor Sutton Building Solutions, the lawsuit states.
R.F. Warder was fined by the state for its role in the incident, but the company is appealing that decision. The company is not named in the lawsuit because workplace injury disputes in Maryland are remedied exclusively through the workers’ compensation process, Slutkin said.
The lawsuit, however, alleges R.F. Warder employees in charge of the Clifton Park pool job were “completely oblivious" to various requirements that apply to safe excavation.
A message requesting comment from R.F. Warder was not returned Monday.
In the days before the trench collapse, R.F. Warder employees reportedly rented a Bobcat excavator to dig into the ground. An employee later decided the crew would need to enter the hole to dig by hand a better channel for water that was leaking from a broken pipe, the suit states.
The hole was allegedly about 15 feet deep when the first person entered the excavation, according to the lawsuit. Shoring — such as protective walls and sloped ways out — is required for trenches more than five feet deep, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
When Keith Sutton arrived to the job site June 5, he allegedly stated aloud that “this was not safe." The subcontractor then entered the hole to help with clearing soil from around the pipe, but failed to warn Hancock and others of the imminent danger, the lawsuit states.
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Around 3:15 p.m., Sutton had finished clearing his side of the pipe and saw the east wall, which was almost completely vertical, was giving way. Sutton saw Hancock standing nearby and yelled for him to run. The 20-year-old attempted to do so but was buried in dirt and debris.
Workers called 911 and began digging by hand to rescue the young man. When the Baltimore City Fire Department arrived, officials ordered employees out of the site because it was unsafe.
The lawsuit alleges the city was aware of previous safety concerns about R.F. Warder’s excavation work. A construction project supervisor with the city allegedly visited an R.F. Warder job site with a 7-foot excavation and noticed the company’s workers had failed to use cave-in protections, according to the suit.
Following Hancock’s death, the city suspended its contract with R.F. Warder, citing “life safety concerns.”
A Maryland Occupational Safety and Health investigation concluded in 2019 that R. F. Warder failed to train its crews to recognize and avoid unsafe conditions and did not conduct adequate daily inspections of the site. The agency recommended a $275,000 penalty for eight citations.
R.F. Warder officials contested the fine and a judge upheld six of the citations, recommending the penalties be reduced to $245,500. The company has asked the Commissioner of Labor and Industry review the decision at a hearing scheduled for April 9.
Sutton Building Solutions was not fined as MOSH’s investigation found the minority contractor had no employees and therefore MOSH did not have jurisdiction, Maryland Department of Labor spokeswoman Fallon Pearre said in an email.