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Lawsuit claims Amazon, construction companies were negligent, leading to deadly warehouse collapse

The lawsuit accuses Amazon of negligence, saying the company didn’t have an emergency plan, didn’t evacuate the building and didn’t have a basement shelter.

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — The family of a man who died when a tornado hit an Amazon warehouse last December in Edwardsville is filing suit.

Austin McEwen’s family is filing a wrongful death lawsuit against Amazon and two companies that were involved in the building of the site, Contegra Construction Company and Tristar Properties.

McEwen, a 26-year-old from Edwardsville, didn’t work for Amazon but he was a contracted delivery driver who worked with the company to make deliveries from the warehouse in Edwardsville. He was one of the six workers who died the night of Friday, Dec. 10 when an EF-3 tornado hit the Amazon distribution center.

Credit: Family photo

The lawsuit accuses Amazon of negligence, saying the company didn’t have an emergency plan, didn’t evacuate the building and didn’t have a basement shelter.

Amazon said workers had 11 minutes to get to what’s known as a “safe area” inside the 1.1 million square-foot building, which is about the length of three football fields.

The majority of the 46 employees who were on-site that day made it to the building’s only safe area on the north side of the structure and survived, Amazon representatives said in the days after the December tornado.

McEwen, the five other people who were killed and one person who was seriously injured were in a bathroom in the south half of the building, which collapsed.

“Amazon knew or should have known that this location would not protect them,” said a news release from Clifford Law Offices, which is filing the suit on behalf of McEwen’s family.

The lawsuit also accuses Amazon of requiring employees to keep working as severe weather approached.

“Initial reports from those that survived this avoidable tragedy are disturbing,” said Jack J. Casciato, partner at Clifford Law Offices. “We certainly intend to discover what precautions Amazon could have taken to save lives. Certainly, this entire facility could have been evacuated when it was believed a tornado was en route. It appears that holiday profits took precedence over safety.”

Amazon disputed several claims in the lawsuit and backed up the team of employees in a statement emailed to 5 On Your Side.

“The local teams were following the weather conditions closely,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel. “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. 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 lawsuit also accuses Amazon, Contegra Construction Company and Tristar Properties with not building the 4-year-old warehouse up to code and not including a basement shelter.

In the days after the tragedy, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said the warehouse was “up to code” – something Amazon agreed with.

“The truth is that this was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes,” Nantel said.

And Gov. Pritzker said in December that many warehouses do not have basements in Illinois due to floodplain issues.

The lawsuit also accuses Amazon of not taking further precautions before severe weather, including training employees on what to do in an emergency and having an alarm warning system in place.

“We need to find out if training and emergency protocols were in place for those in the building as well as those who entered the building with jobs regularly connected to Amazon outside of the facility.”

The Occupational Safety and Hazard Agency, or OSHA, has opened an investigation, which is expected to take six months.

The lawsuit is set to be filed Monday afternoon in Madison County.