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Wrongful death suit blames Home Depot for tornado deaths

A federal court will decide whether the construction of a Home Depot store, about 30 miles from Pittsburg, contributed to the 2011 deaths of three members of the same family. A father and his two children, a 5-year-old and a toddler, were inside the store seeking shelter from a tornado, when the Joplin, Missouri, store's roof was ripped from the building. Falling concrete panel walls crushed and killed the family members and a Home Depot worker.

The children's mother, the man's surviving spouse, recently filed a wrongful death action. The defendants are the designer, owner and operator of the Home Depot store and the property owner, some of whom claim they could not be held liable for "an act of God." More than two dozen Home Depot survivors took shelter in a training room.

A National Institute of Standards and Technology study concluded the survivors were not harmed because concrete panels near them fell outward, due to firm connections to the building's foundation. Panels that crushed the victims by falling inward were connected to the footing of the building only by friction.

Construction was completed on the Home Depot in 2001, using a tilt-up wall building method. Post-tornado federal inspectors said concrete tilt-up panels collapse without connections to a roof. The Home Depot building was designed to withstand winds of up to 90 mph, nowhere close to the force of a 200-mph, EF-5 tornado.

The widow's lawsuit wants the big box retailer to pay punitive damages for flawed store construction and the lack of a tornado-safe area. Home Depot used the tilt-up method to reconstruct the Joplin store but added a reinforced room for safety. The company also contributed $100,000 to the local tornado relief effort after the fatal accident.

Negligence involves a preventable action or inaction. A personal injury or wrongful death claim cannot succeed unless a defendant neglected to act reasonably to prevent harm.

Source: The Joplin Globe, "Lawsuit blames Home Depot’s roof design in tornado deaths" Wally Kennedy, Aug. 02, 2014

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