The family of a worker who died while he was dismantling the railway bridge above the 91 Freeway in Riverside, California, reached a $1.8 million settlement in their lawsuit against one of the companies involved. That company and another meanwhile, still face fines for their role in the structural failure and the workers’ death. The accident highlights the importance of protecting the public and employees involved in demolition, repair or maintenance from preventable bridge collapses.
Among those who will share in the $1.8 million settlement:
- Vinemoni Faasalele, Faasalele’s widow, receives $900,000;
- Okensene Faasalele Jr. receives $198,000
- Fale Faasalele receives $198,000
- Tracy Faasalele receives $198,000
- Sone Faasalele receives $198,000
Victim Fell When Half of Pachappa Street Bridge Collapsed During Demolition
The victim, 59-year-old Okensene Faasalele Sr. was involved in demolishing the railway bridge—known as the Pachappa Street Bridge—in Riverside on May 18, 2014, as part of the 91 Freeway widening project. That project involved a six-mile section of the 91 Freeway between Adams Street and the 91/60/215 interchange. Bridge replacement was part of the project.
Faasalele was part of a contracted crew working on the bridge. At around 3:15 a.m., as Faasalele was cutting I-beams on the eastern half of the bridge when the western half of the bridge “buckled and twisted under him,” according to reports. The victim was harnessed to the western half of bridge when the accident occurred.
After being flung to the ground, Faasalele was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead less than an hour later.
Investigation Faults Contractor and Subcontractor in 91 Freeway Collapse
Hired to work on the bridge were SEMA Construction and Hard Rock Equipment Rentals. Faasalele worked for Hard Rock, the subcontractor on the project. Cal/OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) investigated the Riverside bridge collapse and found both the contractor and subcontractor were at fault.
Among the issues were that the western half of the bridge was anchored to a Caterpillar loader, but that loader was not secured to prevent it from moving accidentally. As the bridge collapsed, the loader was dragged toward it.
“There were no other means of positive restraint against a vertical uplift or transverse overturning force at the bearings of the L-configured girder other than the loader bucket, which was not adequate,” the OSHA report said. “The Cat loader was overloaded beyond its capacity.”
Furthermore, the report found that neither SEMA nor Hard Rock conducted inspections of the bridge to detect whether there was a possibility of collapse and did not ensure a registered engineer was always at the scene.
Perhaps most deadly for Faasalele was that the employer did not ensure that the fall arrest system would prevent an employee from either free falling more than six feet or contacting any lower level.
Caltrans and Hard Rock Dropped from Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Faasalele’s family members filed a lawsuit against Caltrans, SEMA and Hard Rock. Caltrans and Hard Rock were both dismissed from the lawsuit, leaving SEMA’s insurance to cover the settlement. Although the terms of the settlement were confidential, that confidentiality does not extend to Caltrans, which released a copy of the bridge collapse settlement to The Press-Enterprise after the newspaper requested it.
SEMA and Hard Rock Fined for Role in Riverside Bridge Collapse and Death
Regulators issued fines to both SEMA and Hard Rock for their role in the structural failure and Faasalele’s death.
According to OSHA’s records, SEMA was initially fined $54,935 for one serious and three “other” violations, but that penalty was reduced to $30,000. Hard Rock was fined $50,850 for six serious and two “other” violations. That amount stayed the same when Hard Rock’s owner missed a court date.
Both Hard Rock and SEMA argued they should not be held responsible for the accident. SEMA claimed Hard Rock was responsible for demolishing the bridge while Hard Rock argued that the demolition plan was submitted to Caltrans and approved by the agency.
Bridge Collapse Highlights Dangers to Workers
The failure of the Pachappa Street Bridge and Faasalele’s death highlight the importance of ensuring the workers who demolish, repair and maintain bridges are safe while doing so. Faasalele is not the first worker to die when something catastrophic has gone wrong during work on a bridge. In April 2016, a construction worker in Illinois died when the large beams crews were removing from a bridge shifted and fell. A preliminary report into the accident suggested a support strap or chain failed.
Vicente Santoyo, 47-years-old, died immediately. Three co-workers were taken to a local hospital.
In January 2015, the I-75 Bridge (known as the Hopple Street Overpass) in Cincinnati, Ohio, failed during demolition, killing a construction worker. An OSHA investigation found that the demolition plans were inadequate, which resulted in the death of 35-year-old Brandon Carl. Kokosing Construction was fined $14,000 for its role in the bridge failure.
Safety critics have pointed to the number of structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. as being a sign of problems with the country’s infrastructure.