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News : Joplin Woman Suing Home Depot For Deaths During Tornado
Posted by Randy on 2014/8/5 4:17:03 (724 reads) News by the same author

( - As the tornado tore across 20th Street and Range Line Road, Russell “Rusty’’ Howard sought shelter with his two children in Home Depot.
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Although accounts vary, reports suggest that a Home Depot employee went to the lumber entrance to unlock a door to let in two groups of people as the storm bore down on the store.

Seconds later, the entire roof came off the building. The roof helped hold in place 73 tilt-up concrete panels that formed the walls of the store. With the roof gone, 63 of those 100,000-pound slabs fell. Some fell inward. Some fell outward.

A study of the tornado and its impact on structures in Joplin by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the concrete panels that stood were in the northeast corner of the building near a loading dock. Seven of the 10 panels that stood had positive connections to the foundation footing. All of the rest had friction-only connections to the footing.

Howard and his daughter, Harli Jayce, 5, and his son, Hayze Cole, 19 months, were among eight people, including the store employee, Dean Wells, 59, of Webb City, who were crushed when panels on the west side of the store fell inward. Rescuers found Howard with an arm around each child.

About 28 to 30 people — reports vary as to the exact number — sought refuge in a training room near the store’s northeast corner. They survived because the panels on the east side of the store fell outward, according to the NIST study.


After the storm, the tilt-up wall method used to construct the big box store was criticized by a team of engineers that traveled to Joplin to study the Home Depot collapse and other building failures for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The engineers said tilt-up wall buildings by design are prone to collapse in high winds if the roof should fail.

In tilt-up wall structures, concrete is poured in panels on site and lifted into place with a crane. The panels, which form the walls, are held upright by connections to the roof system.

At the time of the storm, local officials also noted that two other big-box stores, Academy Sports and Outdoors and Wal-Mart, had fared better in the storm because of their masonry-block construction.

In response to a story that appeared a month after the tornado in The Kansas City Star, the Tilt-Up Concrete Association formed a technical committee to probe the incident, and to challenge claims that the building was improperly constructed and that the tilt-up design is prone to catastrophic failure in high winds.

Supporters of tilt-up wall construction said the building was designed to exceed code requirements in that it was capable of withstanding a wind load of 90 mph. They said no building could survive a nearly direct hit from an EF-5 tornado with winds of 200 mph.

The association said Academy Sports and Outdoors and Wal-Mart were not as close to the tornado as Home Depot.

According to the NIST study, the Home Depot was approximately 400 feet south of the estimated center line of the tornado damage path. The building was subjected to a maximum wind speed of 165 mph, plus or minus 20 mph. The Wal-Mart store was 750 feet north of the center line of the tornado damage path. It, too, was subjected to a maximum wind speed of 165 mph, plus or minus 20 mph. Three people died there, but 200 survived. Academy Sports and Outdoors was closer to the tornado’s center line than Wal-Mart. There were no fatalities at Academy Sports.

A lawsuit could help decide who’s right, and whether Home Depot and two other defendants are guilty of negligence in the construction of the building.

Edie Howard Housel, who lost her husband and her two children in the collapse of the building, filed a wrongful death suit on May 23 in Jasper County Circuit Court. The suit was moved to U.S. District Court of Western Missouri on July 7 at the request of Home Depot.

Housel is being represented by Katrina Richards, with the Hershewe Law Firm, of Joplin. Housel has asked for a jury trial.


The lawsuit alleges that Russell Howard and his children were directed to the Home Depot’s training room by Wells, but before they could reach that area, the store’s unsupported wall panels collapsed on them. The suit alleges that Howard and his children were killed because of the inadequate and negligent construction of the Home Depot building they entered.

The suit, which seeks unspecified punitive damages, alleges 21 ways in which the defendants were negligent. Among the key allegations:

• Failing to have a proper safe room or tornado shelter.

• Failing to construct the store with an adequate roof system to resist becoming disconnected from the wall system.

• Failing to construct the store with adequate roof-to-wall connections.

• Constructing the building with a mid-span expansion joint in the deck that effectively made the structure into two three-sided buildings, substantially increasing the flexibility and rotational forces on each building.

• Constructing the building with tilt-up concrete walls that collapsed in large panels after becoming disconnected from the roof.

Named as defendants are Home Depot USA, the operator of the store, and HD Development of Maryland, Inc., the owner of the property on which the store is located, and Casco Diversified Corp., the company that designed the store.

In a response to the suit, Home Depot USA and HD Development denied all of the allegations. Such a tornado, the defendants said, was an “act of God’’ and was an intervening or superseding cause, which prohibits the imposition of liability on the defendants.

The defendants also said the suit fails to state a cause of action necessary to give rise to a claim for punitive damages, and that the plaintiff does not have the right to a jury trial with respect to punitive damages.

In its response to the suit, Casco, in addition to denying all allegations, said the defendant is barred by Missouri’s 10-year statute of repose from suing the company. Construction of the Home depot was completed on or about March 1, 2001. The petition was filed more than 13 years after the completion of Home Depot. Casco said the incident and tornado were caused by an act of God that was not reasonably foreseeable.

Robert Wulff, the attorney for Home Depot; Jerome Bales, the attorney for Casco, and Richards, the attorney for Housel, were contacted about the suit. They declined comment.


The probe by the Tilt-Up Concrete Association showed that the building was actually overbuilt when it was constructed in 2001 under the 1996 BOCA Basic Building Code. The code said the building should withstand wind loads of 70 mph. It was designed for a 90-mph wind load.

The probe found “one unusual feature in this particular Home Depot was the inclusion of a mid-span expansion joint in the deck. This created two large three-sided buildings, which can result in large rotational forces on each of the two buildings.’’ The finding raises the possibility the building was more flexible than a similar building designed without an expansion joint.

The probe also yielded a clearer picture of what happened, according to accounts by store managers. They said the front entry glass windows failed suddenly and blew into the building. The roof then began to fail and sections just disappeared. The building then collapsed.

The failure of the entry created a sudden increase in internal pressure. That, coupled with the passing vortex, created the uplift needed to peel the roof off the structure.

The association, in its probe, said, “The fact the panels survived the tornado winds, only to collapse intact once the roof system failed, has led to a misconception in the public discourse. There appears to be a false expectation that the walls should have stood regardless of the condition of the roof.’’

Larry Tanner, a Texas Tech University construction engineer who worked with FEMA to study the Home Depot collapse, came to Joplin immediately after the tornado. In a recent interview, he said he maintains his concern about the design of tilt-up wall construction and its reliance on the roof system to keep the panels upright.

“With these buildings, this is a routine phenomenon when we have high-wind loads,’’ he said. “But you must remember that these precast concrete structures are built in accordance with the building codes and for the design wind speeds that are dictated by the codes.’’

Jeff Needham, the engineer who led the association probe, said, “These buildings are not designed to stand on their own without a roof to support them. The tilt-up panels were not the initiator of this failure. The failure started in the deck roof system.

“The Joplin tornado was a seminal event that undoubtedly will lead to changes in the way these buildings are constructed,’’ he said, in a recent interview. “One thing that has already happened is a dramatic increase in requests for storm shelters inside of big boxes.’’

Tanner also believes that storm shelters inside of big boxes with tilt-up wall construction could save lives in the future.


Desi Maldonado, who completed his thesis last year at Florida State University on tilt-up building design and the Home Depot collapse, said he had hoped to find an answer to one question: How do you keep the panels vertical when the roof fails?

“There was no way to get a definitive answer to that. The only conclusion I could make from a research standpoint was to build a storm shelter inside of the structure, and that would be fairly low cost,’’ he said in a recent telephone interview.

“The hardest part about these buildings is that they are complex systems that rely on each other,” he said. “When you track the load from the foundation to the roof, you will find critical elements along the way.

“The panels in the Home Depot performed well in the storm. They would have performed better if they had been able to stay vertical.’’

Maldonado, Tanner and Needham say it is uncertain whether the building would have behaved any differently had all of the panels had a positive connection to the footing instead of friction only.

“They may have not behaved any differently. Even using rebar to connect the panels to the footing would have not kept those panels from collapsing. The footing would have just rolled over,’’ Maldonado said.

A recommendation of the NIST study would require that tilt-up walls have “rotational restraint capability instead of friction-only to reduce dependency on the roof as the sole lateral bracing for collapse prevention.’’

After examining what happened in Joplin, both NIST and the American Society of Civil Engineers recommended that storm shelters be installed in big-box structures because they lack the material strength to provide protection from tornadoes.

When Home Depot rebuilt its tilt-wall store in Joplin, it included a reinforced room.

Stephen Holmes, spokesman for Home Depot, said, “What we’ve said all along about building the reinforced room is that we don’t hold our facilities out to be storm shelters, but we felt it was appropriate given the events of the past at this store and the sentiment of the community.’’

It is the only Home Depot store to have a reinforced room.

“About the suit, I’d say that the filing of this lawsuit in no way lessens our profound sadness about the lives that were lost due to this terrible tornado or our compassion for the families that experienced those losses,’’ Holmes said.

After the storm

About three weeks after the May 22, 2011, tornado, the Home Depot Foundation donated $100,000 to Convoy of Hope to help with the relief effort in Joplin.

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