Wrongful Death Lawsuit Planned by Family of Tower Fall Victim

 

Almost three months after her daughter fell to her death from a communications tower 10 miles west of Eden, the mother of 28-year-old Stephanie Gurney has hired an attorney to look into possible negligence causing the wrongful death of her daughter on March 28.

As of yet, no lawsuit has been filed, however Big Spring attorney Robert Miller has been hired to represent plaintiff Lisa Weatherby in the case and is currently in the process of obtaining pictures, police reports and other information to build his case.

Gates to the SBA Communications tower from which Gurney fell are chained and locked. (LIVE! Photo/Chelsea Reinhard)

Above: Gates to the SBA Communications tower from which Gurney fell are chained and locked. (LIVE! Photo/Chelsea Reinhard)

According to the report from Concho County Deputy Sheriff Abel Quezada, Gurney, her 30-year-old boyfriend Stephen Butler, and his boss, 40-year-old Joseph Grimes, were out at a tower roughly 10 miles west of Eden on March 28 climbing to evaluate Gurney’s ability.

Gurney was a first-time climber, Grimes told the deputy, and he had been watching her to determine whether or not she would be suitable for employment with his tower maintenance company, Jostan Communications.

“We went through safety measures on the ground, before we even got on the tower,” Grimes told Quezada. After his own climb up, Grimes made it safely back to the ground first and was on the phone when he heard a horrific scream from Butler. He then heard Gurney hit the ground after a fall from high above. They immediately dialed 911.

It took Quezada 25 minutes to arrive on scene, and as he pulled into the gate with the narrow road leading up to the tower, an ambulance carrying Gurney left the scene. Medical staff pronounced her dead at the hospital.

An investigation ensued following Gurney’s transport, and Butler and Grimes were interviewed at the hospital. During one of those interviews, Grimes retrieved the harness Gurney was wearing and showed it to deputy Quezada.

“While looking at the harness, Mr. Grimes stated, ‘That hook is not hooked properly,’” Quezada noted in his report. “He then reached for the harness, at which time I (Quezada) informed him that he had to leave it alone. He asked me if he could show me the way it should be hooked. I told Mr. Grimes we had to leave it the way it was.”

Concho County called in Texas Ranger Philip Kemp to assist in the investigation, who showed up at the hospital and at the scene later that day. The sheriff’s office then closed their investigation into the fall, ruling it a tragic accident. A question remains, however, as to whether or not Grimes was authorized to use the tower in the first place.

“How the system works is SBA owns the tower,” attorney Robert Miller explained. “They then lease to tenants, kind of like an apartment, and these tenants have equipment that’s on these towers for communications or whatever. And then those tenants have to hire somebody to maintain them if they quit or get lightning strikes or something like that, and this is where this Jostan [comes in]…they, evidently, I am surmising because I don’t know, are the repair type people. Those towers are locked up and there’s a combination lock to get in.”

Two sets of gates, each with padlocks stamped with a sticker bearing the initials of the tower owners, “SBA”, kept the area just off of US 87 secured from the public. And while SBA claims to not know who Jostan Communications is, Grimes, who indeed does run a communications tower maintenance business, claims to not know who leases that particular tower.

Asked whether or not he was authorized to use the tower that day, Grimes responed, “That is not being disclosed yet…that information should be in the police report….as of right now, that information is being held off.”

Deputy Quezada’s report is as ambiguous as Grimes is on the authorization aspect, stating only that SBA owned the tower and that Jostan Communications is a business located in San Angelo.

Miller, who says he is working with SBA Communications on the fact-gathering phase of the legal process, says he hasn’t been able to determine who was leasing the tower either.

“I’ve been in contact with the ones that own the tower, SBA. We’re on the same side of the fence,” Miller said. “I’ve got to find out who the vendor was that SBA leased equipment to that evidently gave this guy the combination, which I have not found out. He’s (Grimes) not leasing anything. SBA denies they even know who he is.”

SBA Communications did not return calls made in an attempt to determine who was leasing the tower.

Likening his approach to employing “a rifle rather than a shotgun” to sue those the plaintiff deems responsible for the wrongful death of Stephanie Gurney, Miller said he wants to know all the facts before anything is filed. He stated that he’d sent a letter to Grimes, who hasn’t been cooperating, however Grimes said he received the letter and followed the instructions contained within.

The letter, Grimes said, did not indicate that he was going to be sued and Miller didn’t specify who his target is, however Grimes conceded that he is “under advisory”, preferring at the moment to not name his attorney.

Miller explained that his case would center on negligence, and “when there’s negligence you have economic damages, you have…loss of consortium, mental anguish, loss of relationships between mother and child and the children now do not have a mother. She was somewhat young, so you have to project what her loss of earnings were somewhat in the future.”

Confronted with the possibility of legal action on the heels of the tragic accident that occurred that day, Grimes clung to the friendship he had with Gurney for three years prior to her fall.

“Stephanie was a very close friend of mine,” he said. “Her boyfriend, at the time, is one of my best friends. That was the worst experience I’ve ever gone through in my entire life. The loss was felt by everybody that loved her, myself included. And it breaks my heart to think for a moment that somebody else just like me that was hurt is choosing to take out their anger on me by coming after me for money. Her life was far more valuable than what they suppose this could be about. It’s almost offensive to me, and it’s a disrespect to the relationship that I had with Stephanie and her family that they would treat me this way and they would treat this manner with such low regard as to equate it to money.”

Miller couldn’t speculate as to how long it would take him to sort out the suit and get it filed, or if he’d ever find a defendant that could provide the relief his client is seeking. The case is currently hinging on discovery of the facts.

“I’m kind of wondering if we’ll ever find any pockets that can satisfy any of it,” he said. “I don’t know if this guy has even got anything and then you’ve got the issue, well, is the vendor responsible? We don’t know those facts.”

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The company and its' owner are toast. OSHA regulations do not allow free climbing unless the climber is not only certified but is a designated climber. The designated climber is allowed to free climb to a location on the tower where he will affix the safety line. He will then attach his rope grab that is attached to his safety harness. He will then climb down the tower attached to the safety. The rest of the climbers working on the tower will attach their rope grabs to the safety line and climb the tower.

There is no excuse for allowing a novice climber on a tower without 100% tie off and a certified instructor coaching the climb.

She was tied off and was being supervised. The problem was that the hook on her harness didn't latch properly. That does rest on the shoulders of the instructor/supervisor for not adequately inspecting the rig before she started her climb. The Sheriff's office was correct in their ruling that it was a tragic accident. It is too bad that our litigious society will put a price tag on her death and it will ruin friendships and relationships...but I'm not surprised in the slightest.

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