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Duke faces suit after death of LSRC worker

The family of a Duke employee killed in a steam pipe explosion last May has filed suit, alleging that the University knew that work conditions were unsafe but did not do anything about it.

Rayford Cofer, a 63-year-old master steamfitter who had worked at Duke since 2001, was adjusting a valve in the basement of the Levine Science Research Center when a steam line burst, scalding him with 348-degree fluids. His disfigured corpse was found several feet from the exit with arms pointed straight out, described by a fireman at the scene as “a man frozen in time,” according to the complaint filed last Aug. 26.

Cofer’s family is seeking more than $10,000 from the University to cover the costs of the funeral and other expenses.

The explosion resulted from excess water that had collected in the pipes due to a series of design, maintenance and repair flaws in the system, the document reads. Cofer’s family alleges in the complaint that administrators were aware of the potential safety problems with the system but knew that repairing the facilities would have cost millions of dollars.

“Duke University intentionally weighed the cost of the renovations and needed repairs with the risk of loss of human life,” the complaint reads. “Duke University opted knowingly and intentionally to operate the steam system in its presently inherently dangerous condition.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the University is not to blame for Cofer’s death.

“Ray Cofer’s death was a great tragedy for the Duke community, and I think everybody here joins with his family in their grief,” he said. “We know that his death was an accident that Duke itself could not have prevented.”

But Cofer complained to his superiors that someone would be killed if safety conditions in the system did not improve, said Anthony Brannon, one of three Raleigh-based attorneys who filed the complaint.

“The ‘slushing’ of water in the system made the system a ticking time bomb, which could have exploded at any moment, and eventually certainly did,” the complaint reads. “Cofer, as it turned out, predicted his own death.”

Duke continuously evaluates its safety protocol and therefore has not made many significant changes as a result of Cofer’s death, Vice President for Campus Services Kemel Dawkins said. Employee training, however, has increased since the explosion last May.

“Any time there is an accident or a situation like that, we use it as the opportunity to refocus on safety procedures, the kinds of things that we need to be paying attention to constantly in order to ensure a safe environment,” Schoenfeld said.

Brannon said the positioning of Cofer’s body near the exit suggests that he made an attempt to flee. Although Cofer and his colleagues had rehearsed evacuation plans, a mangled steel door thwarted his escape and made it difficult for firemen to access the basement after the explosion, according to the complaint.

“The mechanical room transformed into a death trap with no possible egress,” the document states.

An investigation conducted by the North Carolina Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health division in November found that Duke employees in the LSRC had not been properly trained to use the steam system and clear access to exits was prevented. Duke was fined $35,000 for nine “serious” violations after the inspection.

The University has provided the organization with additional information to ensure that they fully understand Duke’s efforts to improve safety and has not yet paid the fine, Schoenfeld said.

Dawkins noted that the rare nature of such accidents, coupled with measures the University has taken to improve safety, means it is extremely unlikely tragedy will strike the steam system again.

Doriane Coleman, a professor at the School of Law who specializes in tort law, said lawyers trying workplace compensation suits in civil court must establish that the defendant knew with certainty that its operations were dangerous. After reviewing the complaint, Coleman noted that the Cofer attorneys sketch an argument that could be convincing, but whether they will produce the necessary evidence in court remains to be seen.

“Whether the plaintiff can eventually prove the things alleged in the complaint is not presently at issue. This will come later, assuming the complaint survives a motion by the defendant (Duke) to dismiss the claim,” Coleman wrote in an e-mail. “In other words, it is not possible at this stage to say that Duke has done anything that could make it civilly liable in this case.”

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