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Deadly Dallas Construction Crane Collapse Highlights CRE Liability Issues

A flying car hood outside a fifth-floor apartment window on Sunday convinced Elan City Lights apartment resident Justin Lee that a tornado landed in his Dallas neighborhood. 

“It looked like a tornado,” Lee said. “I saw a car hood flying, like swirling around. I thought I was seeing things.” 

But it wasn’t a tornado. A construction crane from a neighboring work site smashed into his apartment building, destroying the parking garage and some residential units. The accident killed one woman and injured five others, leaving two in critical condition. 

Dallas city workers pick up debris near the Elan City Lights apartment building after a construction crane plunged into it during severe weather.

For the commercial real estate industry, the deadly accident is a harsh reminder of what is at risk when tower cranes are set up near populated areas. 

While it is not yet known what caused Sunday's accident in Dallas' Deep Ellum district, weather is a suspected culprit, with the National Weather Service reporting wind gusts of up to 71 miles per hour in the area. 

It is reminiscent of another recent incident: Four people died in Seattle in April when a tower crane fell during bad weather. It is now believed that crane was dismantled incorrectly.  

Cranes are generally designed to withstand winds up to 120 miles per hour, said Jim Stanley, a safety consultant and former Occupational Safety and Health Administration deputy assistant secretary of labor.

“There are precautions [construction companies] can take to make sure that boom doesn’t go flipping around [in a storm],” Stanley said. "The company [crane operator] has the obligation to prepare for the storm." 

Crane operator Bigge Crane and Rigging said an independent investigation has been launched for the Dallas accident. It said it supplied the tower crane and the operator to the project as a rental provider. The company also confirmed the crane was not in service when the storm hit.  

Greystar Properties, the operator of Elan City Lights apartments and developer of the neighboring apartment tower under construction, didn’t respond to specific questions about the accident from Bisnow on Monday. The company released a statement saying its “deepest thoughts and sympathies are with those impacted by this terrible tragedy.” 

Greystar also said it will work with local authorities to address the needs of displaced residents. 

OSHA is now investigating the Dallas crane accident, and while it is too early in the process to know the cause, experts who observed video of the crane's descent believe a failure to weather vane the apparatus is a possible cause — and a preventable one. 

“When an operator leaves his crane overnight, he does what’s called dressing the crane,” crane operator/consultant and OSHA licensed crane inspector Terri McGettigan said. “Dressing the crane means [pushing the crane] all of the way up into the air, the trolley all the way into the cab, and … a release of the swing break, which is in other words called weather vaning the crane. You release the swing break so the crane flows freely in the direction the wind is blowing.”

McGettigan said the survival of other Dallas cranes suggests weather is not the chief cause in Sunday's accident. 

The breaking point — A close-up of the construction site where the crane broke free.

“I saw video where you can see the crane when it is blowing over, and you can see another crane further back,” McGettigan said. “The telltale sign is you look at the other crane and the other crane is pointed in the direction the wind is blowing. The crane that went down was perpendicular to the wind. Tower cranes are not designed to take that force.”

McGettigan said he suspects the crane operator either forgot to weather vane the crane or he thought he did, but something went wrong and nobody weather vane tested it to ensure the crane could withstand heavy winds.

Bigge didn’t answer specific questions regarding the crane’s condition or whether weather vaning occurred prior to the accident.

Stanley said investigators will most likely focus on whether the crane was left in a condition that is compliant with OSHA regulations. The investigation will go beyond the crane operator; any party associated with a construction site can land in legal hot water when crane incidents turn deadly. 

“This notion of ‘blame the crane operator for everything’ has been significantly curtailed,” Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky partner David Kwass said.

Kwass has handled numerous personal injury and construction-related crane injury cases.

“The modern view is reflecting much more appreciation for the fact that there are numerous stakeholders and entities with various roles and responsibilities with connection to the process and that this is just too big a failure for any one person or entity to be responsible for it,” Kwass said. “That is to say for safety to happen, everybody at the job site has to all be acting safely together.”

For commercial developers, this means escaping liability by simply assigning liability to the crane operator is not going to work in most cases.  

For starters, Kwass said, there is often a contract that states the physical crane operator on the ground is working for the contractor or crane customer while on-site. Therefore, saying it is the crane operator's fault alone “is really getting ahead of yourself,” he added. 

“We don't know what instructions or directions were given to him generally speaking. Generally speaking, you do want to leave a tower crane in a weather-vaned position, but there can be circumstances I am told under which you wouldn’t necessarily want to allow a complete unrestricted weather vaning of the main boom.”

Resident Justin Lee evacuates his apartment, bringing two pieces of luggage after a deadly construction crane accident.

With the U.S. recording 220 crane-related deaths from 2011 to 2015, Kwass and McGettigan both said tower crane compliance and security issues should gain more national attention in the construction industry. 

Texas led the nation in the number of fatal injuries involving cranes, with 40 deaths between 2011 and 2015, a report from the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics said. Texas is followed by Illinois with 12 deaths during the same time period, Florida with 11 fatalities, and California and Pennsylvania with 10 deaths per state.  

“They are not freak accidents,” McGettigan said. “They happen quite often, especially for a tower crane to collapse in the wind. It’s either a foundation issue, a poor foundation or they are not weather vaned.”

Aside from how damages are calculated in dollars and cents, the impact on lives is incalculable. Beyond the fatality and injuries, residents of Elan City Lights are without their apartments as OSHA, Greystar and Bigge begin to plan how to remove the wreckage.

“We are all displaced now, staying at hotels. It's chaos really,” Lee said.

Kwass wants all construction industry players to take notice of the risks involved, particularly when lives are lost.  

“I'd like to challenge the industry to put me out of business for crying out loud,” Kwass said.

“I will go do something else, but instead we just keep hearing about one construction site fatality or catastrophic injury after another. One crane tip-over after another, and there’s no reason for it. I think it does take a village, and everyone — all of the stakeholders — should be ashamed of themselves when this kind of thing happens.”