Injured Dallas Cowboys staffers sue firms in practice facility collapse

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by By BROOKS EGERTON / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 5:55 PM

The Canadian company responsible for building the Dallas Cowboys practice facility conspired with a Las Vegas consulting firm to cover up the giant tentlike structure's design flaws, two team employees alleged in lawsuits Tuesday.

TOM FOX/DMN
The Dallas Cowboys' 6-year-old practice facility collapsed May 2 during a thunderstorm in Irving.

Rich Behm, a scouting aide, and Joe DeCamillis, the special teams coach, were the two most seriously injured when the 6-year-old facility collapsed May 2 and are the first to sue.

Their cases, filed in Dallas County courts, seek unspecified damages from facility designer-manufacturer Cover-All Building Systems; its U.S. sales-and-construction subsidiary, Summit Structures; JCI, the Vegas consulting firm; and other companies that played a role in erecting the structure. The Cowboys were not named as defendants in the suits.

The conspiracy claims may draw strength from comments made to The Dallas Morning News in late May by Jeffrey Galland, JCI's former engineering director. He said he laid out a plan over a year ago to reinforce the facility's frame with "a significant amount of steel."

The builder followed much of the plan, Galland said, but not all of it.

"There were some things that weren't done that we hoped would be done," he said. He would not elaborate and said he didn't recall whether he had been particularly nervous about fixes that weren't made.

Galland said the builder was performing renovations under warranty to the Cowboys and didn't want to pay for some work.

He now runs another consulting firm in Las Vegas and did not respond to interview requests Tuesday. He lacks an engineering degree and served federal prison time for his role in a violent drug trafficking ring, as The News previously reported.

JCI head Scott Jacobs has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Dallas lawyer Tom Fee declined to comment Tuesday on behalf of Cover-All, which is based in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, and its Pennsylvania-based affiliate, Summit.

Summit hired JCI after a building-collapse expert told the Cowboys that its facility had serious design problems. That led to repairs in summer 2007, which the team believed were "a temporary fix," the lawsuits say.

They allege that the builder and JCI "were to design and install a permanent fix after the 2007 football season was over" but did not. Instead, the companies "agreed to hide and conceal the practice facility's shortcomings."

Prominent Dallas trial lawyer Frank Branson represents both Behm, who is permanently paralyzed below the waist, and DeCamillis, who suffered a broken neck but escaped paralysis.

Their lawsuits are based on documents that Summit and other companies provided to the plaintiffs on the condition of confidentiality.

City not sued

Branson said he had seen no indication that the Cowboys share blame for the disaster. He also said that Texas workers' compensation law prevents him from suing the team.

Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple said Tuesday that he would not discuss the suits' allegations. Nor would he say whether the team plans legal action against the builder.

Branson is not suing Dallas-based Manhattan Construction, either. It was the general contractor for the practice facility, which was built in 2003, and for the team's new stadium in Arlington.

"I need more information" before deciding whether to add Manhattan and other companies to the list of defendants, Branson said. Manhattan executives have said their role in building the tent was extremely limited.

Branson said he was not planning to sue the city of Irving. The facility's defects probably weren't the sort that a building inspector could be expected to catch, he said. And the city's record-keeping failures - it didn't keep a copy of the original engineering plans - didn't contribute to the collapse.

Nathan Stobbe, who heads Cover-All and Summit, has tried to focus attention on the thunderstorm that hit Irving on May 2. However, no other structures in the area suffered major damage that day.

Stobbe has also defended his company's commitment to safety. Yet another of its big tentlike structures collapsed in early 2003, six weeks after opening and immediately after a snowstorm in Philadelphia.

The Cowboys hired Summit shortly thereafter, despite knowing about that collapse. A Pennsylvania judge ruled in 2006 that design and construction flaws caused it.

Other defendants

The suits filed Tuesday also target other companies involved in building the Irving facility in 2003. They are accused of negligence but not conspiracy.

One of those defendants is in the Dallas area: Burleson-based Wrangler Concrete Construction, which built the facility's foundation. It is accused of putting rebar "too close together."

That allegedly led workers from Minnesota-based subcontractor Midwest Building and Fencing to make mistakes when drilling holes in the foundation and attaching steel to it.

Wrangler co-owner Brenda Robertson declined to comment on the claims. She said Manhattan Construction hired her company as a subcontractor based on its solid track record.

Midwest Building declined to comment. A company official who would not identify herself directed a reporter to call "our corporate office," but she would not provide contact information and hung up.

The lawsuits do not specify how much money Behm and DeCamillis are seeking. Branson said he would rely on "whatever a jury thinks is fair and reasonable."

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