On May 10, 2004, a digester dome at Spokane’s sewage treatment plant collapsed, killing one person and injuring two others. The collapse dropped Mike Cmos into sewage sludge where he subsequently died. The trial court observed that this was arguably one of the most “disgusting and terrible deaths imaginable.” At the same time, Dan Evans was thrown from the top of the dome and drenched with sewage sludge. Larry Evans, the other plaintiff, was knocked down by the wave of cascading sludge.
Evans, Michaels and Cmos’s family sued CH2M, an engineering firm. CH2M was hired by the city in 1998 as a consultant for a 10-year capital improvement project to upgrade and retrofit the sewage plant.
The reasons the dome collapsed are complicated. Apparently, the plant was struggling to keep the digester tanks warm enough for necessary bacterial activity. The City of Spokane installed “skillets” to increase the heat. However, although CH2M was aware of the City’s conduct, CH2M failed to perform an “engineering analysis” of the impact of the skillets. Further, CH2m failed to communicate to the City the effect of the skillets. Unfortunately, the addition of skillets created “deadhead” that prevented one of the domes from pumping out sewage. The dome subsequently collapsed, killing Cmos, and injuring Evans and Michaels.
During trial, CH2M tried to assert immunity under the industrial Insurance Act (as the City did). Specifically, CH2M claimed that the sewage treatment plant was a “construction project.” Under RCW 51.24.035 (1), immunity is provided to design professionals performing professional services on a “construction project.”
The Washington Supreme Court rejected this contention, stating that CH2M was hired to design and implement the heating system of the digestors. “Construction project” as commonly understood, is an “overarching plan and process of…completing a building (or other structure).” The placement of the skillets simply was not a “construction” job within the meaning of the industrial insurance Act.
The importance of this case is twofold. First, it is Washington Supreme Court’s first attempt to define the term “construction project.” Second, the decision fires another volley over the bow of engineer firms, making clear that common law tort law will be applied to their negligent conduct. Just last year, the Washington Supreme Court lampooned the economic loss rule to hold an engineer firm liable for their negligence. See FM Ins. Co. v. LTK Consulting Servs., Inc., 170 Wn.2d 442 (2010). industrial Insurance Act has likewise failed to provide an immunity shield to engineer firms.