Wrongful death lawsuit is filed over Illinois tornado at Amazon site

Midwest

(KTVI) — 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.

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 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. 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.”

Kelly Nantel, director of media relations for Amazon

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.

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