EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Lawyers on Monday filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Madison County, Illinois against online retailer Amazon and two other companies on behalf of the family of delivery driver Austin McEwen, who was killed Dec. 10, 2021, when a tornado struck the Amazon fulfillment center where he was working.
The tornado, with top winds estimated at 155 miles per hour, ripped the roof off the facility just after 8:30 p.m. and caused the building to collapse on itself. McEwen was one of six people killed.
The other fives victims are 28-year-old Deandre S. Morrow of St. Louis; 62-year-old Kevin D. Dickey of Carlyle, Illinois; 29-year-old Clayton Lynn Cope of Alton, Illinois; 34-year-old Etheria S. Hebb of St. Louis; and46-year-old Larry E. Virden of Collinsville, Illinois.
Forty-five Amazon workers were able to get out of the warehouse safely, with one airlifted to a hospital for treatment.
The lawsuit accuses Amazon of forcing McEwen and others to work when management knew conditions were unsafe after tornado warnings had been issued. McEwen was also told to continue working instead of evacuating when the possibility of a serious tornado was apparent, the suit alleges.
“We spent the last month reading articles on how Amazon knew the tornado was coming, but made the decision to have our son and others work during a peak delivery season for Amazon instead of evacuating the area with no storm shelter in place,” said Alice McEwen, Austin’s mother.
McEwen did not work for Amazon but was a contracted delivery driver who worked with the company to make deliveries from the warehouse in Edwardsville.
In the aftermath of the tornado, Amazon officials said there was a designated shelter in the warehouse where workers could take cover. Kelly Nantel, director of media relations for Amazon, said generally it is an interior spot where there are no windows. She said 39 people gathered in that area on the north side of the building. However, seven people, including McEwen gathered in a bathroom on the south side of the facility.
Attorneys for the McEwen family claim the facility had no basement shelter and no safety plan or adequate emergency plan as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Attorneys also say it questions if the 4-year-old building was built to code, an issue the company confronted directly in a statement Monday morning.
“This lawsuit misunderstands key facts, such as the difference between various types of severe weather and tornado alerts, as well as the condition and safety of the building. The truth is that this was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely,” Amazon’s Nantel said in a statement.
“Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country and, while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down. We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued, and they worked to move people to safety as quickly as possible. We will defend against this lawsuit, but our focus continues to be on supporting our employees and partners, the families who lost loved ones, the surrounding community, and all those affected by the tornadoes.”
Clifford Law Office, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the McEwen family, also accused Amazon of not taking further precautions before severe weather, including training employees on what to do in an emergency and having an alarm warning system in place.
“It had been well-known that as early as Dec. 9, 2021, that the area was at risk for severe weather,” said attorney Jack Casciato, Clifford Law Office. “Tornados were noted to be possible and Amazon did nothing to warn these employees.”
The suit also names the facility’s builder, Contegra Construction, and the site developer, TriStar Properties, LLC. Messages seeking comment from the firms were not immediately returned Monday.
The lawsuit was filed electronically Monday at the Madison County Court House.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has opened an investigation into the building collapse, which is expected to take six months to complete.
“They allege this building was built to code. We do not know that this is true. We do know that certain areas of the country can be prone to severe weather. They have taken the position that those who survived were sheltering and there is a difference in a shelter and being given a proper storm shelter,” Casciato said. “Those that did survive this horrible tragedy, they were on the north end of the building and there is no evidence that it had an appropriate basement, shelter, or storm shelter. Unfortunately, Austin and five others were on the south side of the building sheltered at the direction of Amazon in a bathroom and all this could have been avoided if Amazon took the warnings more seriously.”