Real Estate & Property Law

Woman sues after family dies at local Home Depot in Joplin tornado; retailer cites 'act of God'


Joplin, Missouri, on May 21, 2011. Image from Shutterstock.

A Missouri woman whose husband and two young children died when they took shelter from a massive Joplin tornado at a local Home Depot in 2011 has filed a wrongful death suit against the store, the company that designed it and the property owner.

Edie Howard Housel contends that the defendants were negligent in constructing a big-box building with walls that too easily toppled and a roof that wasn’t adequately connected to the walls. The suit also says the store lacked an adequate room in which to take shelter in the tornado-prone area, according to the Joplin Globe.

Housel’s husband and children died, along with a store employee who let them in and was directing them to a training room, when the roof blew off and a wall collapsed, the suit says.

The tornado, which destroyed much of the town, reportedly blasted past within about 400 feet of the building, with winds circling at some 165 mph. Eight people in the Home Depot building died, the Associated Press notes.

The suit contends that the 100,000-pound concrete panels that formed the walls of the building were too easily toppled. Of the 73 panels that formed the walls, 63 fell, some inward and some outward, the Globe reports.

Housel’s family and the store worker were killed by an inward-falling panel. Nearly 30 people who made it to the store’s training room survived because the wall that collapsed there fell outward.

Since the Joplin tornado in May 2011, engineering groups have recommended that big-box stores include internal storm shelters. The store at issue in the suit now has an internal shelter, unlike other Home Depots, the Globe reports.

“What we’ve said all along about building the reinforced room is that we don’t hold our facilities out to be storm shelters, but we felt it was appropriate given the events of the past at this store and the sentiment of the community.’’ Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for Home Depot, told the newspaper.

As to the Housel claim, he continued, “I’d say that the filing of this lawsuit in no way lessens our profound sadness about the lives that were lost due to this terrible tornado or our compassion for the families that experienced those losses,’’

Originally filed in Jasper County Circuit Court, the suit was removed to federal court last month at Home Depot’s request.

In their response to the complaint, Home Depot USA and the property owner, HD Development of Maryland, Inc., denied the allegations, the Globe reports. Home Depot called the tornado an “act of God.”

Their co-defendant, Casco Diversified Corp., which designed the store, said a 10-year statute of limitations bars the wrongful death suit because store construction was completed in 2001.

Related coverage:

Esquire (2011): “Joplin Tornado Stories”

New York Times (reg. req., 2011): “A Rush to Protect Patients, Then Bloody Chaos”

Joplin Globe: “30 volunteers a day would be a ‘game-changer’ for Rebuild Joplin”

Kansas City Star: “Tornado safe rooms spring up in unusual spaces “

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