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Worker injured on Big Dig gets $8m settlement

Agreement is thought to be largest since project started

In what is being called the largest liability settlement involving a Big Dig worker since the project began, a New Bedford laborer will receive at least $8 million and potentially nearly twice that for injuries suffered when an 8-footlong piece of steel fell from a crane and impaled his skull.

Natalio Elias, a 42-year-old construction worker, had sued the two companies managing the project and a subcontractor, arguing that they were negligent in the July 2000 accident that left him permanently brain-damaged and unable to work.

Under the settlement, Elias, who immigrated to the US from Portugal in 1994, and his family will receive $8 million in damages plus payment of all future medical expenses. If he reaches a normal life expectancy, which doctors say is possible despite his injury, the medical payments would total an estimated $7.3 million, according to the agreement.

Lawyers for Elias and for Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff, the construction and engineering firms overseeing the mammoth project, declined comment. The agreement contains a provision forbidding both sides from publicly discussing it.

However, Richard J. Shea -- a lawyer who represented both Mark Equipment Corp., the subcontractor that provided the crane involved in the accident, and the operator of the crane -- said that all the defendants, including his clients, disavow any liability in the settlement.

''This was an unfortunate accident," Shea said earlier this week. ''We certainly feel that Mark Equipment acted reasonably in all their activities at this construction site. But, given the tragic nature of the injuries, we thought it was best to work cooperatively with Bechtel/Parsons and the plaintiff's attorney to resolve this matter."

Ordinarily, settlements of civil suits remain secret. But the settlement terms were spelled out in a public file because a Suffolk Superior Court judge had to approve provisions concerning Elias's 17-year-old daughter, a minor who will receive some of the money.

David Yas, publisher and editor in chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said the settlement is the largest he knows about in the history of the Big Dig.

''Being one of the biggest public works projects in history, it was expected there would be some accidents and litigation, but I know of no settlement bigger than this one," Yas said. ''It's possible that there have been some [claims] settled confidentially that we haven't heard of, but of the ones we know of, it's the largest."

Since the start of the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project in 1991, four construction workers have been killed, according to Doug Hanchett, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversees the project.

From 2000 through 2004, an average of 264 injuries among Big Dig workers were reported annually to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Hanchett said.

Still, the authority said that the annual accident rate for the Big Dig project has been below the national average for heavy construction projects. The only exception occurred in 1994, when about 17 workers per 100 were injured on the project, compared with a national average that year of about 12 per 100. This year, 3.5 workers per 100 were injured at the Big Dig, compared with a national average of 7.7 per 100.

''The Central Artery/Tunnel Project has had an exemplary safety record throughout its history, with the number of injuries being much lower than the national standard for heavy construction projects," Hanchett said. ''The injury suffered in this case was tragic, and we are pleased that a settlement has been reached."

Elias, an employee of Cambridge-based Modern Continental Construction, was working in South Boston in a rectangular hole about 20 feet below ground on the morning of July 22, 2000, when a bundle of steel cross-braces that was being hoisted by a crane collapsed on him. The operator of the crane was Robert Moreira, a Mark employee from West Roxbury.

An 8-foot-long brace impaled Elias's skull. But because the underground work site measured only 5 by 7 feet, rescue workers were unable to extricate him until firefighters cut off both ends of the brace, leaving 14 inches of steel protruding from each side of his head.

Elias, lying in a wire gurney, was hoisted by the crane through the hole and taken to Boston Medical Center for removal of the bar.

Boston Emergency Medical Service Chief Richard Serino, whose rescue workers succeeded in prying Elias from the hole about a half-hour after they received the 6:47 a.m. call, described the effort as one of the most difficult he could recall. Referring to Elias, Serino added, ''It's amazing what people [can] survive."

Over the next year, Elias underwent four operations, according to the settlement. Although he can walk stiffly, his speech is extremely limited, and he often has a vacant expression, according to a Braintree neurologist who treated Elias. He has no idea of the month or the year, and he is incontinent. He needs round-the-clock supervision and will never be able to work, the doctor wrote.

Elias's wife -- Ana Martins, a stitcher at a clothing factory in New Bedford -- cares for him after she comes home from work around 4:30 p.m. and until she leaves the following day at 6:30 a.m., as well as on weekends. A home health worker takes care of him the rest of the time.

His medical expenses from the time of the accident to July 13 of this year, when the settlement was signed, totaled $853,200.

In the agreement, Elias said negligence by the defendants caused his injuries. He said Bechtel/Parsons failed to properly monitor him and four Modern co-workers working in the hole and that Mark Equipment and Moreira were careless when they hoisted the bundle of braces. However, the defendants insisted that responsibility for the injury lay with the Modern crew, including Elias.

The four construction workers who died over the course of the Big Dig project were John Hegerty, a piledriver who was struck on the head by a 30-foot wooden beam in 1998; Fook Kan, a carpenter who fell 50 feet to his death in a pit in 1999; Frank Shea Jr., a laborer who was killed in 2000 when a US Post Office tractor-trailer pinned him against a concrete barrier; and Lonnie Avant, a crane operator who was crushed in 2003 when the 65-ton vehicle swiveled to one side, pinning him between the cab and the wheel treads.

Hanchett said the Big Dig could not discuss settlements arising out of those accidents because of confidentiality agreements. But in the case involving Kan, his former wife, Carolyn Kan, received $225,000, according to a Suffolk Court file. She contended that Bechtel/Parsons did not properly supervise workers but conceded that her former husband was not wearing a safety harness when he fell.

There have been other fatalities associated with the project. In 2000, an 18-wheeler used to dump clay from the Big Dig tipped over at Rhode Island's state landfill in Johnston, crushing the cab of another dump truck and killing the driver, Edward Tarlowski.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at

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