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Family of man killed at excavation site files suit for wrongful death

The family of a 20-year-old man who was buried alive while working at a Baltimore excavation site is suing the city and a contractor for negligently failing to protect against cave-ins.

Kyle Hancock died on June 6, 2018, after being buried in debris when a wall of the site collapsed. The lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Feb. 6 alleges laws, regulations and industry standards for excavations were violated during the dig.

“It’s very difficult,” attorney Andrew G. Slutkin said Thursday. “Anytime you lose a loved one, but especially a young man who was at the beginning of the rest of his life, is very difficult.”

Hancock worked as a laborer with R.F. Warder Inc., a mechanical contracting company employed by the city to repair and maintain plumbing and heating systems, according to the complaint. R.F. Warder allocated some of its work to a minority contractor, Sutton Building Solutions LLC, as required under its contract with the city.

R.F. Warder is not a defendant in the lawsuit because workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for Hancock’s damages for an injury on the job, said Slutkin, of Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White LLC in Baltimore. The family — including Hancock’s mother, stepmother and sister — is suing the other parties it believes are responsible, including the city, Sutton Building Solutions and company owner Keith Sutton.

R.F. Warder was called about a clogged pipe at the Clifton Park pool on May 29, 2018, according to the complaint, which said workers determined that a pipe had collapsed and that a 15-foot-deep excavation would be required to reach it. The complaint said excavation began on June 4 and workers, including Hancock, began entering the hole the following day to dig with hand shovels once the hole had reached approximately 15 feet deep.

Sutton arrived on the job site the afternoon of June 5 and “looked around the job site and said out loud, but to no one in particular, that this was not safe,” according to the complaint. At the time, one wall of the excavation site was “nearly vertical” and could collapse, but Sutton entered the site and did not stop the work, though he stayed away from the vertical wall where Hancock was working, the complaint said.

Sutton later saw the wall near Hancock start to give way and yelled for him to run, but Hancock “was completely buried in tons of dirt and debris from the collapse,” according to the complaint. Sutton called 911 and workers jumped into the excavation site to dig but were later ordered away from the site by emergency personnel, who deemed it unsafe.

Hancock’s body was uncovered around 1:30 a.m. on June 6, according to the complaint, which said his cause of death was asphyxiation.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) investigated the incident and issued multiple citations carrying financial penalties against R.F. Warder for violations of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Act. An administrative judge later affirmed the majority of those citations and $245,500 in penalties. Slutkin said the MOSH investigation serves as useful background information for the civil lawsuit, providing guidance on whom to depose and which documents to request.

According to the lawsuit, the R.F. Warder employees in charge of the site did not have the required knowledge to conduct such an excavation and “were completely oblivious to the various requirements of the standard of care, laws, regulations and industry standards that apply to safe excavation at depths of five feet or greater.” The city allegedly knew the company lacked the requisite experience and a city employee had previously seen a lack of cave-in protection at one of the company’s sites, the complaint said.

Sutton allegedly recognized the site was unsafe but did not stop the work or ensure the safety of personnel, according to the complaint.

“He was present, he recognized the danger, he verbally acknowledged the danger, said to himself that he wasn’t going to get near the vertical wall and didn’t say anything to anyone else when he saw Kyle standing next to it,” Slutkin said. “When you see something, you’re supposed to say something.”

The complaint seeks damages for wrongful death and survivor action against the city, Sutton and Sutton Building Solutions.

The case is Andrea Jo Hancock et al. v. The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al., 24C20000676.

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