First lawsuit filed in Amazon tornado disaster

Grieving in a court case

By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

THE PARENTS OF AUSTIN McEWEN, 26, one of six Amazon warehouse workers killed when a tornado ripped through the company’s warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill. Dec. 10, 2021 have filed suit against the anti-union, e-retail giant, alleging Amazon failed to provide a safe working environment and kept workers on the job long after they should have been evacuated. – Jeff Roberson/AP photo

It was no surprise on Jan. 17 when the first lawsuit against Amazon was filed by the family of one of the six Edwardsville warehouse tornado victims.

The parents of Austin McEwen, 26, alleges that the anti-union corporate giant failed to provide a safe working environment and kept workers on the job long after they should have been evacuated with a tornado on the way on the evening of Dec. 10, 2021.

“Even as early as Dec. 9, it was very clear that this area of southwestern Illinois could be at risk of a tornado, and the warning intensified throughout the day,” said Jack Casciato, a lawyer for the family. “The question Amazon will have to answer is, ‘Why were these workers present at this facility?”

The 1.1 million square-foot delivery and packing facility opened in July 2020 and employed about 190 people to prepare orders for delivery.

‘ROLLED THE DICE’
The lawsuit, filed in Madison County, says that conditions were “highly unsafe” following tornado warnings but that the company “rolled the dice with people’s lives to put profit over safety,” Casciato said at a press conference.

McEwen was a delivery driver who took shelter in a bathroom at the warehouse.

“Austin was a wonderful son. He was only 26 years old,” said his mother, Alice McEwen. “We looked forward to seeing him get married, have children of his own and celebrate life’s milestones in the years to come. This was all taken from us.

“Sadly, it appears that Amazon placed profits first during the holiday season instead of the safety of our son and the other five families who lost loved ones,” she added.

The lawsuit is seeking more than $50,000 for each of four allegations of negligence, but Casciato expects the final judgements to be “in the millions.”

“We’re suing because we hope companies like Amazon learn a lesson,” he said.

FACTS CONFUSED?
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company’s focus is on supporting its employees, their families and the community, but that it will also defend itself against the lawsuit, saying it confuses key facts about weather conditions and the warehouse structure.

The lawsuit says Amazon required the victims to continue working as the storm approached while the 1.1 million square foot warehouse lacked a proper storm shelter or alarm.

Nantel argued that Amazon managers took all precautions available to them. “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,” she said. “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.”

The company also pledged to donate $1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation for recovery efforts and will seek to support the victims’ families and provide relief to other employees.

JUST A DAY LATE?
Casciato countered that workers in other nearby warehouses were sent home in time.

“Would it have been difficult to say, ‘We don’t know if a tornado is hitting the area, but it could, so we want people to go home and get out of the Edwardsville area?’ ” he said. “And if packages get delivered a day late, they get delivered a day late.”

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has launched an investigation into whether the warehouse violated safety codes.

‘THEY WON’T LET ME LEAVE’
Larry Virden, 46, was a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Iraq, but on Dec. 10 he was working at the Amazon warehouse. He was the father of four children and had a longtime girlfriend, Cherie Jones.

They were texting back and forth about the storm, and his last message was, “Amazon won’t let me leave until after the storm blows over.” Sixteen minutes later, at 8:39 p.m. he died when the roof collapsed. He lived 13 minutes’ drive away.

“What if they would have let him leave?” Jones said in an interview. “He could have made it home.”

It brought back memories to Jones of Virden’s time in Iraq.

“He had a missile blow up in front of him, like 200 yards away, so he was lucky over there,” she said. “When he was over there, he made his peace with the maker, so he was prepared to die. But we didn’t want him to die now.”

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