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Did Amazon do enough to protect workers? Lawyers intend to find out

Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. Violent storms, some producing tornado activity, ripped through the Midwest on Friday night, killing at least two in the warehouse.
File photo / Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Dec. 11. Six workers were killed at the Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Barely a day had passed after a tornado claimed six lives at an Amazon warehouse when prominent attorney Ben Crump announced he’d been hired to represent the family of one victim. Crump, who gained national fame for his representation of the family of Michael Brown, said he would investigate whether Amazon did “everything in its power” to protect workers.

That question will likely keep a lot of lawyers busy.

Connie McFarland-Butler, who owns her own law firm in Florissant, noted that the Amazon warehouse’s location in Madison County, Illinois, makes the litigation uniquely appealing for out-of-town lawyers. The county is known nationwide as particularly favorable to attorneys seeking big jury verdicts.

“A lot of times you have plaintiff's attorneys up in Texas and all over the country who are attempting to file in Madison County. [In this case], it doesn’t take much to establish a connection with Madison County and to get jurisdiction in Madison County,” McFarland-Butler noted. “I'm sure that there are plaintiff’s attorneys all over the country who are swooping in trying to take advantage of this litigation.”

Attorney Mark Smith, a former associate vice chancellor at Washington University, agreed. “And you also have a defendant that has extremely deep pockets,” he said of Amazon. “I mean, everything comes together.”

From left, attorneys Mark Smith, Connie McFarland- Butler and Nicole Gorovsky.
File photo / Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
From left, attorneys Mark Smith, Connie McFarland-Butler and Nicole Gorovsky.

The two attorneys made their remarks on St. Louis on the Air's Legal Roundtable. The panel discussed Amazon’s responsibilities to its employees and whether those duties change depending on if some people at the warehouse were independent contractors. They also discussed what questions will be front and center for attorneys sorting through the facts of the case.

“I think one of the big things will be, ‘Did they have a place for these employees to go in an unsafe situation?’ And it sounds like they did,” Smith observed, noting that the 45 employees who made it to a designated area (apparently a bathroom) on the north side of the warehouse survived. The six who perished, as well as a seventh who was badly injured, were on the south side.

Questions may focus on how much time the workers had to take shelter. Were they on the south side because they didn’t have time to make it to the north? Experts say that slowing down work during inclement weather is not Amazon’s way. Or, did they head south on purpose, only to find themselves in a designated spot that just didn’t hold up to a huge tornado? Building codes don’t always take tornadoes into account.

Nicole Gorovsky, a former prosecutor who practices at Gorovsky Law, said those aren’t the only questions. “Part of this lawsuit is going to turn on, what safety procedures did Amazon have?” she said. “What were the policies in place? Were those policies followed on that day? And that's going to make a huge difference in the case.”

Smith noted that, for the victims’ families, no amount of money may be enough to make them whole. However, that’s not the only purpose of litigation after a tragedy like this.

Listen to the Legal Roundtable discussion

“What the law tries to do, oftentimes, is make decisions that will help avoid this tragedy in the future,” said Smith. “So maybe they say, ‘Let's hit them with a big verdict, because then in the future, employers will be quicker to put people in safe places.’”

Added Gorovsky, “Not to go on my big long soapbox here, but that's why we have seatbelts. And that's why we have child [car] seats. And all of those policies were made because of lawsuits.”

The attorneys also analyzed the status of mask mandates and public health guidelines in Missouri. After losing a lawsuit in Cole County, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt has threatened legal action against school districts and public health departments that enforce COVID mitigation strategies. Some entities have folded. Others have pushed back.

The attorneys discussed what the Cole County ruling actually says, whether it applies to school districts, whether counties have the right to intervene and whether Schmitt could face problems with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for declining to pursue the appeal desired by his ostensible client, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.