An Historical Look at the 1981 Hyatt Regency Collapse (08-06)

July/August 2006

Disaster Kansas City - Part 1
An Historical Look at the 1981 Hyatt Regency Collapse

This article is Part I of a three-part KC Counselor series covering the July 17, 1981 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse. Part I will provide background and an overview of the collapse and its aftermath. On August 25, 2006, the KCMBA will host a CLE at KCMBA Bar Headquarters, which will feature a round table discussion focusing on the litigation that followed the disaster. Attending the round table discussion will be The Honorable U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright, who presided over the federal case, former Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Timothy D. O'Leary, who presided over the state case, and a number of attorneys who represented plaintiffs and defendants in the litigation. Part II will consist of a summary of the round table discussion. Part III will focus on the impact of the Hyatt disaster on (1.) the practice of law in Kansas City, (2.) the practice of engineering in Missouri and in the nation, and (3.) the families of those injured and killed. 1

A Festive Evening Turns Tragic

On Friday July 17, 1981, a crowd of more than 2,000 gathered in the spacious atrium of the newly built Hyatt Regency Hotel for a popular summer tea dance. The band played Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" while dancers gathered on and under three massive walkways spanning the atrium. Dancing turned to disaster at 7:05 p.m. when the fourth-floor walkway collapsed onto the second-floor walkway below. The second-floor walkway then collapsed sending tons of concrete and debris onto an atrium floor crowded with tea dance participants. Many of the more than 100 people dancing or standing on the two collapsing walkways were hurled into the air and fell onto the floor below. Dozens of people were trapped beneath the remains of the two walkways.

hyattA large scale rescue operation soon unfolded. Heroes of the evening ranged from a husband who pulled his wife's trapped foot from the wreckage, to a surgeon who performed an emergency amputation to save a trapped and bleeding victim, to construction crew workers who toiled throughout the night clearing the debris. A local crane company arrived at the scene to remove sections of collapsed walkway. Dispatchers called in emergency vehicles from throughout the city. Outlying cities such as Belton and Lee's Summit offered help within minutes of the dispatch calls. Victims were rushed to four nearby hospitals. Donors poured into the Greater Kansas City Community Blood Center. Local talk-show host Walt Bodine broadcast throughout the night. As late as midnight, excavators were trying to reach over a dozen people still trapped under the debris. At 5 a.m., workers uncovered the final 31 bodies from the last slab of concrete to be removed. Local lawyers John Alder from Overland Park and John Walter Bergman, Jr. of then Morrison, Hecker, Curtis, Kuder & Parrish were among the names of the deceased.

Despite the efforts of the hundreds involved in the rescue operation, the ultimate outcome proved dire. The next day, the Kansas City Times reported 42 killed in the disaster with dozens injured. In the days following the collapse, the number of deaths rose to 114, with over 200 people injured. The Hyatt collapse would unfold as one of the most deadly events in Kansas City history and one of the worst structural engineering disasters the nation has ever seen.

The Aftermath - Litigation

In the days and months following the Hyatt disaster, investigators, reporters, engineers and lawyers would descend upon the disaster area to undertake the critical process of determining the cause of the walkway collapse. Area lawyers were quick to begin the discovery process. Shortly after the disaster, Max Foust filed motions to permit photos and inspections of the atrium which had been closed since the disaster. Orders also focused on the storage of the remains of the skywalks.

After the disaster, local law firms took seriously the potential conflicts and emotional issues involved in representing clients in the disaster. Given the death of attorney John Walter Bergman, Jr., Morrison, Hecker, Curtis, Kuder & Parrish decided not to represent any defendants in the case. Ironically, the firm's future merger partner, Stinson, Mag & Fizzell would take a lead role in representing defendants. The well-known defense firm of Shook Hardy & Bacon decided to take on several plaintiff's cases. Blackwell, Sanders, Matheny, Weary & Lombardy represented the project manager and one of the related insurance companies, putting Blackwell lawyer William H. Sanders on the opposite side of the case from the family of his friend John Alder, a lawyer from Overland Park who died in the disaster.

Numerous lawsuits were filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, naming a wide array of defendants, including Hyatt Corp., the Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., the project managers, architects, contractors, and steel workers and even the city of Kansas City. Due to the volume of cases and number of attorneys, a state court plaintiffs' committee was formed consisting of Patrick McLarney, Max Foust, Lantz Welch, John Shamberg, Norman Sanders, Preston Williams, Brent Snapp, Patrick Kelly, Clayton Chittim and William Partin.

On September 1, 1981, Washington D.C. lawyer Irving Younger, along with Overland Park attorney Robert Gordon, filed a class action law suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri. The latter suit asked the Western District Court to certify Molly Riley as the class representative for all business invitees present at the time of the skywalk collapse.

The class action suits named numerous defendants, including Duncan Architects Inc., later found to play a pivotal role in the disaster. Demands for damages reached levels as high as $237.8 million in actuals and $39 million in punitives for a 34-year-old woman paralyzed from the neck down. The number of individual cases filed would reach the point that communal proceedings in Jackson County Circuit Court included over 70 attorneys. By November 1981, more than $3 billion in damages had been pled in lawsuits surrounding the incident, and the first settlements were reached-three wrongful death cases settled for approximately $700,000.

At the beginning of the litigation process, numerous techniques were employed by the courts and lawyers to manage the onslaught of tort litigation. In state court, for example, Judge Donald Mason consolidated all circuit court cases under a single judge who would handle discovery and oversee standard interrogatories and requests for production. These efforts, however, would soon be overshadowed by the controversy brewing in the Western District class action suit.

A UMKC Law Review Symposium on the Hyatt Disaster from winter 1984 detailed the divisive nature of the Federal class action. Those in favor of the class action argued that a Federal class action would save time by resolving liability issues and handling contentious punitive damages issues. At the time, Missouri case law was thought to bar duplicative punitive damages judgments against the same defendant. Proponents of the class action were also concerned about the order of settlement playing a dominant role in damages received by plaintiffs. On the other hand, those against the class action feared that a class action would result in longer periods for payment, hinder settlements and thwart attorney representation of individual plaintiffs. Prior to the decision on class certification, the parties had settled 121 bodily injury and wrongful death claims through the payment of over $18 million dollars.

In January of 1982, Judge Wright certified a mandatory non-opt-out Rule 23(b)(1)(A) class action on the issues of liability, punitive damages, and compensatory damages. A Rule 23(b)(1)(B) class action was also certified for the issue of punitive damages. Although Molly Riley was the initial class representative, she was found to lack diversity from two of the defendants.2 The court, however, determined that four of the plaintiffs did have the requisite diversity and named plaintiffs Stover, Vrabel, Grigsby and Abernathy as class representatives. (Grigsby, Vrabel and Abernathy would later be deleted as class represents due to lack of diversity or settlements.) Settlement activity temporarily stopped.

The class ruling resulted in three distinct advocacy groups in the Federal class action. The plaintiffs, led by attorneys Irving Younger, Robert Gordon and Robert Collins, the defendants led by attorneys Robert Driscoll, Joseph Sherman and Michael Waldeck, and the "plaintiffs-intervenors" lead by Patrick McLarney, John Shamberg, and Max Foust. The plaintiffs-intervenors, along with some of the defendants, moved to dismiss the motion for class certification.

Plaintiffs-intervenors would also move to disqualify Judge Wright from presiding over the litigation due to communications with Shirley Stover concerning her potential appointment as a class representative. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit would later find that Judge Wright did not abuse his discretion by refusing to disqualify himself from the case.3

Although Judge Wright was vindicated by both the court and Circuit Judge Heaney's dissent on the issue of disqualification, the Circuit court ultimately vacated the class certification on June 7, 1982. The Eighth Circuit appeal focused on the conflict between the class certification and the Anti-Injunction Act4 which provides that a US court may not use an injunction to stay state court proceedings unless expressly authorized by Congress or where necessary in the aid of jurisdiction or to protect the court's judgment. Court of Appeals Judge McMillian, writing for the majority, concluded "Any doubts as to the propriety of a federal injunction against state court proceedings should be resolved in favor of permitting the state courts to proceed in an orderly fashion to finally determine the controversy."5

After the June Circuit court decision, the group of plaintiffs aligned in favor of the class action filed for summary judgment on the issue of liability, which motion was denied in July by Judge Wright. They also petitioned the 8th Circuit to reconsider its decertification decision and sought review by the United States Supreme Court. Although Justice Blackmun requested written briefs from the lawyers, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in November.

The state court plaintiffs withdrew from the federal case. Discovery was back in full-swing in the state court, sparked in part by a pre-decertification order in June by Judge O'Leary sustaining the state plaintiffs' motion to proceed with discovery and depositions on the wrongful death issues. Given the prospect of significant overlap in the state and federal discovery processes, Judge Wright issued an order requesting that the plaintiffs' liaison committee in the state court cooperate with the federal court class action team.

In December of 1982, the plaintiffs-intervenors who contested the Federal class action and the defendants would join together to file joint suggestions in favor of the certification of a class action in the Jackson County Circuit Court. certification was ultimately granted. The plaintiffs in support of the state class action certification were represented by a cadre of local attorneys: Patrick McLarney, Max Foust, Lantz Welch and Lynn Johnson. Defendants were represented by a team of lawyers that included local attorneys Robert Driscoll, Michael Waldeck, Thomas Leittem, Lawrence McMullen, Bill Fabian, Joseph Sherman, Kevin Glynn and Heywood Davis.

The Federal class-action plaintiffs would move the District Court to certify a new mandatory class action, excluding from membership those participating in the state court litigation. The recertification was denied in September with Judge Wright stating, "This Court can not, in good conscience, certify a mandatory class action where the membership of class is governed by the fortuitous circumstance of having rushed to a courthouse to file suit."6 An attempt at certification of a voluntary class action was also initiated. In a September 1982 hearing, the court determined that there was no available plaintiff representative with the requisite diversity. The prior class representative, Ms. Stover, settled her cases and those of her children for approximately $10 million. Accordingly, the District Court declined certification of the voluntary class and instead consolidated pending cases with a trial date set for January 10, 1983.

In October of 1982, however, a defendant was found with the requisite diversity and, over objections by the defense lawyers as to the appropriateness of the new class member and the certification, the Court certified a voluntary class action under Rule 23(b)(3).7 Ironically, the new class representative, Mrs. Deborah Jackson, who was allegedly cut by flying glass in the skywalk collapse, was also present at the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas where she was evacuated by helicopter.

Solutions to the management of mass tort litigation remained a pervasive theme throughout the process leading to ultimate settlement. The plaintiffs-intervenors group's attorneys, including local attorney Duke Ponick, filed a motion in District Court requesting that the court take the unique action of approving a joint federal and state trial to be presided over by Judge Wright and Judge O'Leary. Judge Wright ultimately denied the motion, citing concerns about the inability to bind parties who had not filed lawsuits, equitable distribution of punitive damages and general management problems.

The Jackson County Circuit Court preliminarily approved a state class-wide settlement and held a hearing for final approval on January 5, 1983. The state court settlement allowed class members to fully release their claims in exchange for $1,000, settle for additional amounts, or try the issue of compensatory damages. Defendants agreed not to contest liability and plaintiffs agreed to the establishment of a compensation fund. A $20 million fund was established for supplemental damages in excess of compensatory damages. Prior to final approval of the state settlement by Judge Forrest W. Hanna on January 6, 1983, over 1,025 payments had been made to potential plaintiffs. Settlement of the state claims was embroiled in controversy and a number of federal court hearings took place around the issue of Federal defendants' communications with class members, ultimately leading to the issuance of a contempt order by Judge Wright.

On the first day of the federal court trial, January 10, 1983, counsel for the defendants informed Judge Wright that a settlement agreement had been reached. A settlement hearing was conducted on January 20, 1983. The federal settlement agreement, applicable to the 24 remaining federal class members, provided payments of $1,000 in exchange for full releases or the opportunity to submit the issue of compensatory damages to arbitration or jury trial. Defendants agreed not to contest liability, to set up a $10 million settlement fund which included a fund of at least $6.5 million for charitable contributions and a supplemental compensation fund of $3.5 million. A fund of approximately $150 million was established for general compensatory damages. The District Court approved the settlement.9 Federal attorney fee awards amounted to $1.77 million in fees and $441,044 in expenses.

Structure Failure

Because the issue of liability was not litigated due to the settlements, the ultimate issues of cause and responsibility would remain somewhat clouded. Conflicting reports about the design led to speculation about the cause. According to reports by the Kansas City Star, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage, Fred R. Havens, the president of Havens Steel Co., which installed the steel beams supporting the walkways said that "it appeared that the walkways were made for light traffic" while Hyatt Hotels Corp. president Pat Foley said that the skywalks "were designed to hold people shoulder to shoulder, as many as you can jam on there." Then Mayor Richard L. Berkley likely concurred with the latter statement, exclaiming on the night of the disaster that "There is no excuse for that happening in a virtually new building." Multiple investigations were pursued by the hotel owner, Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., the operating company, Hyatt Hotels Corp., the architects, the general contractor and the city.

Investigations would later focus on construction changes from the original design of the suspension rods that supported the cross beams. The Hyatt atrium, which is present in the building today, spanned the distance between the north half of the structure housing approximately 700 guest rooms and the south half of the structure housing ballrooms, meeting space and restaurant space. At the time of the collapse, there were three walkways connecting the guest room space with the functional space. On the west side of the atrium, a walkway spanned the atrium at the fourth-story level and suspended below it was a two-story high walkway. Offset to the east from the fourth and second-floor walkways was a separate walkway spanning the atrium at three stories high. The third-floor walkway did not collapse but was later removed.

The original designs of the fourth-floor walkway and the second-floor walkway called for a continuous steel rod to run from the ceiling supports down through the fourth-floor walkway to the hanging second-floor walkway. The actual construction resulted in a separate rod supporting the suspended second-floor walkway, essentially doubling the load on the fourth-floor box beam. (See the diagram below).

hyatt diagram

Deutsch, an administrative law judge for Missouri's Administrative Hearing Commission, found structural engineers Jack Gillum and Dan Duncan guilty of gross negligence in the Hyatt disaster. The judge recommended disciplinary action. Both engineers later had their Missouri licenses revoked. In a 1988 Missouri Court of Appeals case, the Eastern District examined a recommendation for discipline due to the box beam connections and the alleged misrepresentations by Mr. Duncan as to the double rod configuration that replaced the single rod configuration called for by the original plans. The Court supported findings of gross negligence on the part of Mr. Duncan. 10

Closing Thoughts

This article scratches the surface of the legal battles and engineering issues that enveloped the 1981 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse. As is evident from the above historical account, the progression of the state and federal court actions was mired in issues relating to the potential allocation of punitive damages, ethical issues regarding legal fees and conflicts of interest, expedient and efficient mass tort management, the
Shortly after the disaster, the Kansas City Star reported that the suspension rods were visible in the aftermath of the collapse. This indicated that the failure occurred where the rods were connected to the cross beams. While the issues of liability and causation were never tried, the changes in the rod connections were consistently seen as a leading cause of the collapse.

In November of 1985, Judge James B. battle between numerous local attorneys and prominent national class-action legal personalities, and deeply personal legal maneuvers ranging from motions for the withdrawal of judges to contempt actions. To delve deeper into these issues and to understand how the skywalk disaster affected the legal community and the national practice of engineering, join the KCMBA for the August 25, 2006 CLE and look for additional articles in this series in the October edition of the KC Counselor.

1 Various Kansas City Times and Kansas City Star articles published after the collapse were consulted for factual background. Articles in the UMKC Law Review Symposium on the Skywalk Collapse were also consulted (52. UMKC Law Review 141 (Winter 1984)).
2 In re Federal Skywalk Cases, 93 F.R.D. 415
(W.D. Mo. 1982).
3 See In re Federal Skywalk Cases, 690 F.2d. 1175
(8th Cir. 1982).
4 28. U.S.C. §2283.
5 In re Federal Skywalk Cases, 690 F.2d. 1175,
1183 (8th Cir. 1982).
6 In re Federal Skywalk Cases, 95 F.R.D. 479,
482 (W.D. Mo. 1982).
7 In re Federal Skywalk Cases, 95 F.R.D. 483
(W.D. Mo. 1982).
8 A Case Study in Mass Disaster Litigation, 52
UMKC Law Review 151, 170 (1983) (citing the
Kansas City Times, October 19, 1982).
9 In re Skywalk Litigation 97 F.R.D. 380 (W.D.
Mo. 1983).
10 See Duncan v. Missouri Board for Architects,
Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, 744
S.W.2d. 524 (E.D. Mo. 1988).

KC Counselor - by Steve Consentino

July/August 2006 edition (Volume 15, Issue 7)

Pages 4-7

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