The aftermath of the deadly construction collapse inside the Marathon Oil building in west Houston is expected to result in complex and lengthy litigation with numerous companies involved in the project where three construction workers were killed Monday.
Many questions about the incident remain, including how it happened and who was responsible, but lawyers familiar with construction litigation described different scenarios that could play out as more information becomes known.
Brian Kilpatrick, a partner with Wilson Cribbs & Goren in Houston, said the families of the dead will presumably bring wrongful death claims. They may name the general contractor, subcontractors, the building’s owner and possible others in a lawsuit. One person was injured.
Kilpatrick cited a case from several years ago involving a high-rise on Kirby Drive where the windows began falling from the tower’s upper floors, damaging cars and property on the ground.
“There were dozens of parties named — all the way from the owner to the contractor to subcontractors to insurers, you name it,” he said. “That’s what I think is going to happen here.”
The bodies of the construction workers, who were killed when a precast concrete staircase collapsed, were recovered Wednesday on the lower floors of the building, which is under construction just south of Interstate 10 inside Beltway 8 near the CityCentre office, entertainment and residential complex.
D. E. Harvey Builders is the project’s general contractor and East Texas Precast is the subcontractor that manufactured the stairs.
The cause of the collapse has not been disclosed, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been on-site to investigate the incident.
“They will have access to people and documents no one else will have access to,” said Derek Potts, an attorney with the Potts Law Firm who has represented victims and their families in personal injury cases and other matters. “It will potentially identify the root cause of the collapse and flag violators.”
Potts said a lawsuit could be filed in the coming days or weeks, early enough so that the plaintiff could seek a temporary restraining order to secure the site, preserving the evidence for its own experts to inspect.
Construction of the 15-story building is being financed by SMBC Leasing and Finance Inc., a subsidiary of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., along with other institutions, Marathon said. SMBC will own the building and lease it to Marathon when it is completed. Hines is developing the property for a fee.
On HoustonChronicle.com: Bodies removed from site of deadly collapse
The construction contracts will help determine liability.
The case becomes more complex with possible indemnity policies and subrogation claims, which is when an insurer seeks financial relief from another party that may have been to blame.
General contractors and some large subcontractors have so-called commercial general liability policies, Kilpatrick said. A party found liable could be faced with having to pay out of pocket if its insurance policy is lower than the amount it is liable for. But if an insurer fights an offer to settle within the policy amount and then a greater amount is awarded in court, the insurance company would be responsible for the full amount.
There are some protections. If there were to be an action against the property owner for what is called premises liability, the plaintiff would have to prove the owner had actual knowledge of dangerous conditions.
The collapse itself has slowed the development’s progress, and factors such as whether new contractors need to be hired and the potential litigation could delay it further. That may impact Marathon’s move. The company has been planning to move into the new tower in the second half of next year after the lease in its current building at 5555 San Felipe expires.
This article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.