In retrospect, it probably didn't require a team of professionals to determine that Notre Dame student videographer Declan Sullivan, 20, shouldn't have been atop a hydraulic scissor lift overlooking Irish practice the day he fell to his death last October. Just a day earlier, practice had been forced indoors for the first time all season by a record-setting low-pressure front that had descended over the Midwest. South Bend was under a wind advisory before, during and after practice on the day Sullivan fell, when gusts reportedly topped 50 mph — twice the manufacturer-recommended limit for most scissor lifts. Before practice even began, Sullivan himself cryptically tweeted, "Gust of wind up to 60mph well today will be fun at work... I guess I've lived long enough." About 10 minutes later, he posted from the tower, "Holy [expletive] holy [expletive] this is terrifying." The perch came down about 45 minutes later.
If those sound like unsafe working conditions to you, the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration officially agreed Tuesday morning, classifying Sullivan's death as "a preventable workplace fatality" and fining Notre Dame $77,500 for a failure to "establish and maintain conditions of work that were reasonably safe for its employees" after a five-month investigation. Specifically, the university was hit with fines for each of six violations, according to the Chicago Tribune:
• Knowingly exposing its employees to unsafe conditions by directing its untrained student videographers to use the scissor lift during a period of time when the National Weather Service issued an active wind advisory with sustained winds and guests in excess of the manufactured specifications and warnings. $55,000 fine.
• Not properly training the student employees in the operation and use of scissor lifts. $5,000 fine.
• Not doing annual, monthly or weekly inspections on the scissor lift for more than a year. $5,000 fine.
• Not having a scissor lift service as required by the maintenance schedule in the operator's manual. $5,000 fine.
• Not having an operator's manual kept in a weather-proof box. $5,000 fine.
• Missing some warning labels and having some labels that were weathered and faded. $2,500 fine.
Where a human life is concerned, $77,500 isn't much. But the OSHA judgment could lay the groundwork for proving university negligence if Sullivan's family chooses to pursue a lawsuit that could cost Notre Dame significantly more.
To be fair, that remains a very vague and possibly even unlikely "if." On the website for the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, the family writes that "Dec was doing what he loved in the place he most wanted to be," and is working with the university about a memorial. They also praised the university's recent plan to ban hydraulic lifts altogether in favor of mounted cameras surrounding the field. Their priorities in grief do not necessarily include a cash settlement. Where the state of Indiana is concerned, though, the verdict — if not the sum — still looks like some small measure of justice.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.