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Family sues over DPW worker’s drowning death at Baltimore wastewater plant

Trina Cunningham, in a photo provided by her family’s attorney.

A new lawsuit claims that the wastewater facility where a Department of Public Works supervisor drowned in 2019 was a “deathtrap” that was so poorly maintained it was all but guaranteed to harm employees.

The DPW employee, Trina Cunningham, died when part of a catwalk fell out from under her, dropping her into an 18-foot deep wastewater chamber below, according to the lawsuit. She drowned in the wastewater and her body traveled 1,000 feet through a pipe that was 8 feet in diameter before being recovered in the “solids reclamation area,” the complaint claims.

Cunningham’s wife, Towanda Grant-Cunningham, filed the lawsuit on behalf of her estate this month in Baltimore Circuit Court.

“The City was aware of the condition of the building that my wife was working in,” Grant-Cunningham said in a statement provided by her lawyer. “My wife going to work should not have been a grave mistake.”

The complaint names the mayor and City Council of Baltimore, the city’s Department of Public Works and 10 officials and managers in the department, along with several companies that manufactured pieces of equipment in the facility where Cunningham died.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works declined to comment because the case is pending.

Cunningham fell inside the “grit facility” at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant on June 3, 2019.

A safety inspection conducted after her death found serious hazards. The lawyer for Cunningham’s family, Roland Brooks, provided the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health report to The Daily Record.

A photo of the catwalk that Trina Cunningham fell through at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant on June 3, 2019. The photograph was taken by a MOSH inspector. The yellow pipe was placed at the site following Cunningham’s fall.

The catwalks in the facility stood above six chambers that wastewater traveled through to separate out debris. Each catwalk was made up of grates that were held together with metal clips, according to the report.

More than 60% of the clips that held together the catwalks were either loose or missing when MOSH inspected the grit facility.

The complaint also alleges that a beam that supported the collapsed catwalk had been damaged and bent from being hit with by a large overhead crane that employees used to remove debris from the wastewater chambers. Employees were not properly trained in how to use the crane, and MOSH found that the cranes had not been adequately inspected or maintained, according to the complaint.

Inspectors also found elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas, inside the grit facility.

MOSH wrote that employees who worked in the grit facility were “exposed to inhalation, fire and explosion hazards from toxic atmospheric gases,” that the building’s ventilation system was inoperable, that building gas sensors were broken and that employees were not equipped with portable gas detectors while they worked in the building.

MOSH found 28 violations of federal and state safety rules, according to the complaint, 24 of which were deemed “serious.” WBAL reported in November 2019 that the city was appealing the citations.

“The Grit Facility was in an extremely hazardous, deleterious and precarious condition and there were multiple failures and violations of occupational safety and health standards,” Brooks wrote in the complaint.

Cunningham appears to have fought to survive, according to the complaint, before drowning in the wastewater. She had suffered a broken wrist and several lacerations when her body was recovered.

The complaint seeks millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.

Brooks said that the city knew about problems in the grit facility for at least a year before Cunningham’s death.

“The mayor and City Council of Baltimore is responsible for Mrs. Cunningham’s death, and because there is no way to bring Mrs. Cunningham back they should compensate Mrs. Cunningham’s family financially in a way that sends a message that they take this matter seriously,” he told The Daily Record.

“Mrs. Cunningham’s 20 plus-years of service to Baltimore city should not have been rewarded with her untimely death,” he said.

The complaint accuses the city of violating Cunningham’s due process rights by putting her in harm’s way, known as state-created danger, and a “widespread pattern of negligence and incompetence in the use of the equipment in the grit facility.” The complaint also raises product liability, negligence and wrongful death claims.

“The city defendants’ willful decision to remove all safety precautions from the grit facility created a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience,” Brooks wrote in the complaint. “… The city defendants directed Trina L. Cunningham to work in a facility that the city defendants failed to abate numerous known and foreseeable dangers or take any precautions to prevent death or serious bodily injury, which meant that eventually an employee would die in the grit facility or be seriously injured.”