Monday, February 22, 2010

Builders Should Learn From Olympic Luge Tragedy

If you have turned on the television, listened to the radio, or picked up a newspaper recently, then you’ve probably been inundated with coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, the 16-day period that is generally regarded as one of the most joyous in sports began on a very sad note. During a training run, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili had a horrific accident that resulted in his death.

While Olympic officials and many commentators cited athlete error for the unfortunate event, many felt that the luge track was too fast–that designers and builders created a course that simply allowed its users to reach unsafe speeds.

I live in Texas, where luge is an event that is watched every four years (and not too often in between) and luge track building is a construction niche that never enters the mind. However, I have seen construction projects in other fields lead to unfortunate accidents and even deaths. For that reason, everyone in the construction industry can use this Olympic tragedy as a learning moment.

Every builder should ask themselves this question: "What happens if someone is severely injured or, heaven forbid, killed on a project I’m working/worked on?" If you don’t know the answer, then you need to immediately start doing some homework.

If the project is still in the midst of construction, you should be sure you are taking all the safety precautions needed to project your own crews. First, it is the right thing to do, and secondly, companies do not want OSHA conducting an investigation only to find your company liable for a preventable accident.

Assuming the project is post-construction, the first thing any builder or contractor should do when they hear about an accident is grab their contracts. These will lay out if there is indemnity to you from another party, or if you were a named insured under another contractor’s insurance policy. If you do have indemnity, you can breath a little easier as another party will be responsible for your defense and all settlements/judgments.

Conversely, if you are the party providing indemnity to another, it is imperative that you immediately notify your insurer of this incident. Insurers are typically not obligated to provide coverage until their insured ask for a defense. Also, third party notification is not sufficient–the actual insured needs to demand coverage and defense from their carrier.

Once these preliminary steps are taken, the case will probably turn into an investigative matter on causation. In other words, what caused the injury or death, and who was responsible for that cause. In the Georgian luger death, most commentators who did not blame the athlete cited the course design (that it was designed to be too fast for even elite lugers to safely navigate). That is an element that would most likely fall to the architect and engineers. There have not been allegations of defects in construction, so the parties swinging the hammers would probably not be the target.

On other projects, however, the design might be just fine, but the execution flawed. In those situations, the general contractor and subs would probably be the parties facing potential liability.

It is indeed a shame that the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games began on such a sad note. This Georgian luger’s death should remind us how fragile life is and how much we should treasure every moment. But let it also be a reminder to all in the construction industry to follow best practices. Protect your own crews and provide a safe working conditions for others. Know your indemnity obligations, and make sure they are enforceable. Stay in close contact with your insurer and do not give them any basis to deny coverage. And thoroughly investigate the true cause of accidents to defend current claims and prevent future ones.