$20M lawsuit filed over trench collapse death in Warren County

The estate of a man killed when a trench collapsed on Dec. 28, 2017, at a home construction site outside Morrow, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the home builder and contractors they blame for accident.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Hess’ employer, JK Excavating, with nine violations related to the fatal trench collapse and ordered a $202,000 fine.

Lawyers for the estate of Zachary Hess, 25, of Mason, claim Ryan Homes and other companies and contractors — not including JK Excavating — involved in the project, are responsible for the death.

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“Simply because JK was cited doesn’t mean they were at fault. Many, if not all, of the citations had no connection to the cause of death,” Michael Roberts, one of the lawyers handling the lawsuit, said in response to questions.

The lawsuit names “NVR Inc., (doing business as “Ryan Homes”), the developer, Nathaniel Development, and associated subcontractors they supervised,” according to a press release issued by the Graydon law firm.

Hess was buried alive in the trench collapse and pronounced dead at the Woodland of Morrow development.

The lawsuit claims Hess was working on “an impossible task” because of a mistake in where the plumbing he was to connect had been run in “poorly compacted soil” in an “inherently dangerous” location.

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“As a grieving mom, there were things about this situation that didn’t make sense to me. Early in the process people wanted to place the blame where it was easily laid,” the victim’s mother, Cindy Hess, said in the release. “Over the past 15 months, I have been shocked to learn that there were basic mistakes made that created a situation where Zach had no chance that day.”

Ryan Homes and the other defendants have not responded to the lawsuit filed last week in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

After the fatal accident, Doyle Burke, chief investigator for the coroner’s office, estimated 150 people from rescue squads from around the area were at the scene in attempts to rescue Hess.

Clearcreek Fire Chief Steve Agenbroad said crews of five to 10 firefighters took turns hand-digging in hopes of getting to Hess, buried 20 feet to 30 feet down, while he was alive.

No heavy equipment was used for fear of worsening the collapse.

Before digging, the rescuers also stabilized the area to guard against more collapses and to protect the crews digging for Hess.

The Morrow Fire Department called for help from the Warren County Tactical Rescue Team.

Such a rescue can trigger emotions in rescuers much like the victim, Agenbroad said, especially “right after Christmas.”

“You put your professional hat on you get to work and do what you have to do,” he said at the time.

Since Hess’ death, his mother has become a frequent speaker on trench awareness at safety industry conferences and local Cincinnati and Ohio construction firms.

Her message is “Remember Zach” and for all employees to be safe when working in a trench, according to the Graydon release.

“Basic mistakes were made. Objective, simple things that should have been done to protect Zach,” said attorney Roberts. “The Hess family has been living this nightmare for over a year, and we look forward to bringing to light the multiple players involved in this tragic situation.”

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