A lawsuit alleging an improperly constructed airplane hangar collapsed during a 2006 storm was settled Monday night just after opening statements in Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth’s courtroom.
John P. Cunningham and Corey Krasshaur of Brown & James in St. Louis represented United States Aviation Underwriters, Inc., an insurance company acting as assignee of GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Colleen Corporation and as subrogee of GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Knoxville Aviation, LLC.
Defendant Jacobs Engineering Group was also named as a defendant because it accepted liability for the project after it bought Sverdrup, which engineered the design and build aspects of the hangar.
Krasshaur began opening statements at about 3:15 on Monday, arguing that defendants cut corners when building Hangar 61 at the St. Louis Regional Airport in Bethalto and knowingly concealed the inadequate work.
He argued that engineers represented to the owner of the hangar and the tenants that the building was more secure than it actually was, calling their actions a fraudulent cover up.
“This case is about fraud,” he said. “This case is about concealment. It’s about a cover up.”
Krasshaur argued that according to drawings of the hangar, a suspended wall was supposed to be anchored with two 18-inch bolts, but an investigation after the storm revealed that only one six-inch bolt was actually used to anchor the wall. Furthermore, investigators also revealed that two 18-inch bolts were originally there, but were cut off and the single six-inch bolt was used instead.
He added that the six-inch bolt was “woefully inadequate” and could not have withstood the weight of the structure, resulting in its failure.
Furthermore, Krasshaur said the engineers continued with construction even though they had not been given the approved drawings.
“As a result, Hangar 61 was unsafe and dangerously constructed,” he said.
Because of the smaller, single bolt, Krasshaur argued that the extended wall gave way during a severe storm in July 2006
Krasshaur told the jury the storm resulted in roughly $4.1 million in damages to two airplanes being stored in the hangar at the time – the 1981 Dassault Falcon 50 owned by Glaxo and the 1983 Dassault Falcon 20F owned by Knoxville.
However attorney Albert Peacock of Keesal Young & Logan of Long Beach, Calif., said in his opening statements for the defense that while Jacobs was prepared to accept any responsibility the jury deems just, liability truly rests with the various companies used in the hangar’s construction.
In 1987, Sverdrup was hired to build the hangar. In turn, it hired RCS for foundation, Helmkamp for construction, Varco-Pruden for design and supplies and LASCO as building erector.
He said that therefore, RCS was responsible for putting bolts into the foundation; Helmkamp and LASCO were responsible for making sure the columns lined up with the anchor bolts and adding nuts and washers to them; and Varco-Pruden was responsible for informing the engineers where the bolts go.
Peacock argued that the defendant’s engineering experts found that the extended wall did not bear the full weight of the roof.
He argued that the dispute was whether the storm caused the roof to blow off first or the extension wall to give-way first.
Peacock said that while the defendant is prepared to accept responsibility, it was not negligent in the construction because one bolt was strong enough to support the extension wall. He also said the defendant did not commit fraud because it was not aware that only one bolt was used. In fact, it didn’t even purchase Sverdrup until 19 years after construction.
“At worse, this was a mistake on Sverdrup’s part. It was not an intentional fraud or cover-up to deceive anyone,” he said.
He added that the company could accept responsibility, but “Sverdrup did not commit fraud."
Peacock compared the trial to a puzzle and asked the jury to put the puzzle together.
“A trial is like a puzzle,” he said. “What you’re going to get over the course of this trial are pieces and they are not going to come in in any logical order … So your job is to remember each of these pieces and then piece together the puzzle and tell us what the picture is.”
“You will have to decide with the pieces of the puzzle we give you why the hangar collapsed,” he added.
He said the problem was that they are missing half of the puzzle pieces. He explained that it’s been 28 years since the hangar was built and some key witnesses have since passed away, including on-site manager Dennis Libke and on-site foreman Lee Gagnon. Those who are still alive don’t remember every detail, he said.
Additionally, Peacock said they do not have a complete set of project records and the investigation did not have a complete set of materials documenting the collapse. Some photos were taken, but not detailed photos depicting the inside of the hangar, before the structure was demolished. Sverdrup was not invited to the scene until five months after the collapse and demolition, he said.
Madison County Circuit Court case number 08-L-651