Notre Dame investigation begins

Updated: October 29, 2010, 8:25 PM ET
Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- State regulators are investigating whether the University of Notre Dame violated safety rules when it allowed a student to videotape football practice from a tall hydraulic lift that toppled in high winds, killing the young man.

Authorities also planned to review whether Declan Sullivan received training before using the scissor lift and whether a federal rule barring workers from using scaffolds during bad weather would have applied to his job, Marc Lotter, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, said Friday.

Sullivan, a junior film student, died Wednesday after the lift fell over in gusts that rose as high as 51 mph. The machines typically extend to 40 or 50 feet, but it's unclear how high Sullivan was when Notre Dame's lift crashed to the ground.

An attorney who represents relatives of people killed in accidents involving aerial platforms said the scaffold rule does not apply to scissor lifts, though industry groups have drafted rules limiting use of the lifts in windy conditions.

Still, attorney David L. Kwass said the Notre Dame accident clearly violated those industry standards and other rules of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"If there were indeed gusts up to 50 mph, which is what was reported, then it was completely inappropriate to put an operator at height in a scissor lift. That should never, never, never have occurred," said Kwass, chairman of the American Association for Justice's crane and aerial lift litigation group.

He said OSHA rules requiring employers to ensure a safe workplace and safe working conditions "would absolutely apply" in Sullivan's death.

A 2007 Notre Dame policy posted on a departmental website says lift operators must consider weather before using the machines, but university spokesman Dennis Brown would not say Friday whether the document reflected current policy.

"We're not providing any detail on the policy because it's part of the investigative process," he said.

The 14-page policy also appears to provide conflicting information about what training is required for lift users.

It says the department operating the lift is responsible for arranging training of lift users through the university's Risk Management and Safety Department. But it also requires lift users to sign a waiver acknowledging the university will not provide training and that they have reviewed manuals and understand how the lift operates.

Brown would not say whether Sullivan had signed a waiver.

Sullivan's uncle, Mike Miley, who has been serving as family spokesman, said he did not know whether his nephew had signed the waiver.

Robert Blomquist, a Valparaiso University law professor, said the university has a general responsibility for students' safety.

"To make sure there are adults that are advisers who are supervising the students and training the students and watching out for things like this. That's going to be an important issue," he said.

As a student worker, Sullivan reported to a video coordinator who oversees filming for the athletic department. Messages left at the home and office of coordinator Tim Collins were not immediately returned Friday.

A friend said Sullivan never expressed concerns about working in the lift and questioned whether Sullivan actually feared for his life when he posted a messages on Twitter describing the wind gusts and saying it was "terrifying" to be on the tower.

"Knowing him, that was definitely not the case," said Shane Steinberg, 20, a junior from New York City.

"There's a misunderstanding in general of our social networking culture and what it all means. I think that the sarcasm of it all and the playfulness about them is falling through the cracks," he said.

Steinberg told The Associated Press he met Sullivan during their freshman year and quickly discovered a shared love of film. While Steinberg favored classics like "Citizen Kane," he said Sullivan would watch "terrible films that any other person would just scoff at and love it."

"He loved the offbeat. He loved most of all movies that were just visually stunning. He liked to be taken to another place," Steinberg said.

He said Sullivan, who was from the Chicago suburb of Long Grove, Ill., planned to go to California after graduation to try to work in filmmaking.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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