A worker's death at a Detroit arena was called a suicide. Some safety experts disagree

Jennifer Dixon
A worker's death at a Detroit arena was called a suicide. Some safety experts disagree

The morning was warm and clear, with more than a thousand workers finishing construction of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, when a pair of ironworkers noticed an orange blur hurtling down, past a catwalk.

Michael Morrison landed in the dusty, plastic-covered seats below. One of the ironworkers rushed to call 911. An electrician heard the loud thud and hurried down a set of stairs to witness Morrison gasp for air four times, then nothing.

The Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Medical Examiner declared the June 2017 death of Morrison, a 46-year-old electrician from St. Clair Shores, an accident.

But the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration called it a suicide, siding with builders who insisted Morrison – in the midst of a busy workday –  jumped seven stories, from a steel beam into the red arena seats.

Safety experts say MIOSHA's decision to overrule its own inspector – who also labeled the death an accident – raises questions about whether regulators are putting big business ahead of Michigan workers. They also say that not counting workplace deaths correctly thwarts efforts to improve safety in the workplace.

This is the second time that the Free Press found MIOSHA failing to back its own inspectors and seeming to favor big business. In January, the Free Press reported MIOSHA managers allowed executives from Bedrock Detroit to lecture several veteran construction safety inspectors on how to do their jobs, while a state board dismissed violations against Detroit's largest developer. The Bedrock matter did not involve a workplace injury.

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More: Medical examiner: Death of worker at Little Caesars Arena was accidental

Work continues on the arena area during a construction tour of the Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit on Monday, June 12, 2017.

Employers don't want a workplace fatality on their record: It can drive up the costs of workers' comp and other insurance, as well as the cost of performance and payment bonds. It's a stain on their safety record, which can impact a company's ability to successfully bid on other work.

A suicide, on the other hand, is a "convenient way to close the case and move on," said Troy lawyer Shereef Akeel, who specializes in employment law. "It exonerates the employer and absolves them of any fault." 

MIOSHA pointed to a Detroit Police report to support its finding of suicide – a report the police department called preliminary. The state decided to classify the death a suicide even after the medical examiner, who has the final word on cause and manner of death in Wayne County, ruled it an accident.

Then, claiming insubordination and falsification of records, MIOSHA ousted its own long-time inspector and destroyed his handwritten notes while the case was still open.

In response to queries during a Free Press investigation, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel will look into "all aspects" of the Little Caesars case, spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney told the newspaper earlier this month. The U.S. Department of Labor also will review MIOSHA's handling of the fatality, a spokesperson said.

MIOSHA responded with a statement from director Bart Pickelman.

“MIOSHA’s mission is to help protect the safety and health of Michigan workers," Pickelman said. "The investigation determined there were no MIOSHA rules or recognized safety practice that would have prevented Mr. Morrison’s unfortunate death.” 

In emails to the Free Press and in its own internal documents, MIOSHA referred repeatedly to Morrison's death as a suicide.

But in an April 11 interview, Pickelman insisted a finding of suicide was irrelevant.

Suicide, he said, "doesn't matter for my determination whether there was a violation of a rule that would have prevented him from dying."

Workplace safety experts called MIOSHA's handling of the case highly questionable and welcomed independent review to determine whether the agency acted in a way that benefited Olympia Development, which was building the $863 million stadium for the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons; Barton Malow and the Hunt Construction Group, which were overseeing construction; and Morrison's employer, Motor City Electric.

"I find it very peculiar that MIOSHA would go with the first officer's report when there is further evidence that makes it appear this was an accident instead of a suicide," said Susan Schurman, distinguished professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Schurman was responding to Free Press questions and has not independently reviewed the case. 

"This is a tough question for the management of MIOSHA. I don't know why you didn't go with the M.E. It doesn't make any sense," said John Newquist, a former assistant regional administrator for federal OSHA in Chicago, where he oversaw MIOSHA and other state OSHA programs for seven years.

A spokesperson said the Department of Labor, in response to questions from the Free Press, will review the case in what it calls a "special study." Such studies can be conducted by the Labor Department's national or regional offices.

Ken Moore, who was president of the Michigan State Employees Association until early April, supports the Michigan attorney general looking into the agency's handling of the accident at Little Caesars and the ouster of inspector James Zoccoli. The union's members include MIOSHA inspectors.

MIOSHA acknowledged that it based its finding of suicide on a police report – a report that the Detroit Police Department said was "based on preliminary information gathered at the scene on the date of the incident." DPD said it doesn't issue a final report in a death investigation; that's up to the medical examiner.

Critics said MIOSHA was wrong to side with big business over the working man.

Olympia Development is a part of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Little Caesars and Olympia Entertainment, owner and operator of the Fox Theatre. Barton Malow and Hunt Construction are both known for building large, complex projects, including sports venues. Motor City Electric calls itself one of the largest electrical contracting specialists in the United States. 

"It's perplexing but not surprising that a state agency would have a bias against injured workers," said Southfield lawyer Joel Alpert, who represents Morrison's widow, Lynne Morrison, in her fight to get workers' comp death benefits.

"MIOSHA is supposed to be independent but the facts here appear to show a significant bias in favor of the business community and that does not serve the people of the State of Michigan."

Moore, the former state employees union president, said he is "extremely concerned" about MIOSHA's leadership and direction. 

He said MIOSHA stands up for "big money and that's absolutely wrong," Moore said. "And if that ... affects someone's employment, for standing up for what's right, that's wrong."

Moore said he wants the attorney general to investigate MIOSHA because "I just want answers. Big money should not have influence in regulation."

"You cannot be effective at preventing fatalities unless you have accurate data to identify the causes," said Celeste Monforton, who lectures about public health at Texas State University and spent 11 years at federal OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration in Washington, D.C.

Monforton said MIOSHA has an obligation to consider the findings of the medical examiner, police, and other sources when they corroborate the agency's own inspector. If MIOSHA fails to do so, she said, "then the agency loses trust with the public, loses credibility and then risks becoming irrelevant."

After MIOSHA threatened to fire Zoccoli for his handling of the Little Caesars investigation, the 26-year agency veteran retired in November to protect his medical benefits and collect a pension in place of a paycheck. 

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'A real tragedy for his family'

Michael Morrison's family sent him to work the morning of June 28, 2017, with a grocery list for that night's dinner, and he had plans for a trip to Indiana that weekend, according to a family member. He was one of 1,115 workers at the site that day, just two months from Little Caesars' ribbon-cutting and its first concert, a Kid Rock show.

About 8 a.m., an ironworker from Pennsylvania saw, out of his peripheral vision, something falling. Noticing an orange shirt and jeans, he realized it was a person and called 911. 

When police arrived, Alicia Washeleski, whose company, Plante Moran, was project manager for Olympia Development, and Cullen Coponen, who worked for Hunt Construction, told the responding officer that the "victim may have jumped from the north end sector ... from a beam and that victim was not supposed to be in that area," according to the preliminary police report.

By then, Washeleski and Sean Hollister, who worked for Barton Malow, had already collected witness statements from workers, according to the police report.

One of those statements was from David Bludworth of Rochester Hills, who, like Morrison, worked for Motor City Electric.

"I seen the guy talking loud on the phone on the spotlight platform," Bludworth said in a statement written on a Barton Malow form. "One of my men (Mike Conflitti) had talked to him earlier and said that he broke up with his wife or girlfriend."

But when police interviewed Conflitti, a Motor City Electric worker from Richmond, he said he didn't know Morrison and the extent of his conversation with him that morning was to offer a bottle of water. 

In an interview at Barton Malow's headquarters in Southfield, CEO Ryan Maibach said: "We feel 100% confident this was not the result of a workplace accident. ... 

"This was a real tragedy for his family."

According to an incident investigation report from Barton Malow, and obtained by the Free Press from MIOSHA, Morrison was two stories above his assigned work area, and was not on a scheduled break. A structural steel beam directly above where Morrison landed had footprints on it.

"The objective findings are indicating that the employee intentionally walked out on the unprotected beam and jumped," the Barton Malow report said.

Maibach said Morrison had to walk past multiple safety barriers to get to the beam, and that a coworker found Morrison in a "very agitated state" that morning.

But police never matched the footprints on the beam to Morrison's brown boots, and they didn't recover his phone, according to the Detroit Police Department. No one interviewed by police saw him on the beam or the actual fall, according to witness statements.   

Another witness interviewed by police said he heard Morrison hit the stands, but didn't see or hear anyone talking or arguing before the incident.

Police also interviewed Lynne Morrison, who said her husband hadn't shown any signs of anger or depression, that their financial situation was "nothing ... we couldn't handle" and that there was no one in his life who would cause him to be angry or depressed.

"We shared everything," she said.

Through her lawyer, Alpert, she declined to speak to the Free Press. Olympia Development referred questions to Barton Malow. Motor City Electric and a spokesman for Hunt did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

View of the Little Caesars Arena from Section 103 Row 18 Seat 19 in Detroit, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

Local authorities rule death accident

By mid-August 2017, the Detroit Police Department and the medical examiner had determined the death was an accident.

Dr. Carl Schmidt, Wayne County medical examiner, stood by his office's findings.

"Based on the MEO's investigation, which included information from the police investigation and Detroit Receiving Hospital, there was no reason to suggest this death was anything other than an accident. No other information has surfaced since then, that would prompt the MEO to amend its findings," Schmidt said in a statement in February to the Free Press.

MIOSHA inspector Zoccoli continued to investigate the death, collecting the autopsy report from the medical examiner and staying in touch with police. He labeled the death an accident in MIOSHA records.

His supervisor, Bradley Redinger, overruled him in October 2017.

"Please close the fatality and companion inspection at Little Caesars Arena. I have determined this fatality to be non-program related since it was self-inflicted and not a result of a deficiency in the construction safety standards," Redinger told Zoccoli in an email.

"I have reviewed the police reports, photos and other documents received," he told Zoccoli in the October 2017 email.

MIOSHA refers to workplace deaths that it either does not have jurisdiction to investigate, or chooses not to investigate, as "non-program related." These cases have included heart attacks, suicides, homicides, traffic wrecks, helicopter and plane crashes.

Even though it labeled the arena death as non-program, it also had a parallel investigation into several employers at Little Caesars, among them Morrison's employer and the construction managers.

MIOSHA later cited several employers including Hunt and Barton Malow for violations at the arena involving improper guardrails near where Morrison went down and where he landed.

MIOSHA insisted those violations had nothing to do with Morrison's death. 

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The Hunt and Barton Malow violations and penalties were dismissed in February by the Board of Health and Safety Compliance and Appeals, which hears contested MIOSHA cases. Like MIOSHA, the board is housed in the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.  

MIOSHA cited Motor City Electric, and a subsidiary, Motor City Electric Technologies, with one guardrail violation each. They settled with MIOSHA and the agency dropped all penalties and reduced the severity of the violations.

According to worksheets that Zoccoli used to calculate penalties for the companies, between four and 15 workers were exposed to the potential hazards of improper guardrails  including Morrison. MIOSHA blacked out the workers' names in documents released to the Free Press, so the exact extent of the risk to workers could not be determined. 

The Free Press first began asking MIOSHA questions about the fatality in October 2018, prompting the agency to review its records and Zoccoli’s role in the investigation.

"This was determined to be a suicide and there were no violations of MIOSHA rules that caused or contributed to the death of the employee," Jeannie Vogel, a spokeswoman for MIOSHA, told the Free Press in an email last fall.  

MIOSHA also determined Zoccoli had improperly categorized the fatality as an accident, even after his supervisor had overruled him. That prompted MIOSHA to begin investigating Zoccoli for "falsification of records and insubordination," according to a MIOSHA spokesman, Pardeep Toor.

On Oct. 22, 2018, Zoccoli was brought in for questioning by a supervisor.

He was asked several questions, including this one: "Is it true that your supervisor made you aware of the Detroit Police Department (DPD) report indicating it was a suicide," Zoccoli was asked, according to documents obtained by the Free Press. 

His answer: No. 

"Is it true that you did not have then, and do not have now, any evidence that a rule violation caused or contributed to the death of the employee?" he was also asked. He said he disagreed with the semantics of the question, according to a copy of the notes taken during his questioning and obtained under an open records request. 

He was also asked whether he had talked to anyone in the news media about the fatality. He said he had not.

Zoccoli was handed the case file and asked whether he wanted to take a look.

"I don't believe that this is the complete file," he said.

"Are you contending that this is not all the info you submitted," he was asked.

"Handwritten notes are not part of it," he answered.

On Nov. 2, Zoccoli was put on administrative leave and told to attend a disciplinary conference in Southfield the following week. He was also told the contemplated discipline was dismissal, to be prepared to return his state vehicle and to arrange for transportation home.

Instead, Zoccoli retired and got a job as an ironworker.

Toor said Zoccoli's notes were "disposed of" because any relevant information in them had been "captured" in the case file.

"As is standard practice, the Steno notebooks were then disposed of along with other non-relevant documents submitted by the inspector," Toor said in an email. According to the state's record retention policy, notes that have been transcribed into another format can be destroyed.

In the interview, Pickelman said Zoccoli "tends to gather a lot of information that is not relevant" and that a good investigator "spends time gathering relevant information." 

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Accurate stats vital to worker safety

Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, who studies workplace injuries and deaths at Michigan State University, said about 120 to 150 people die each year on the job in Michigan. About a third are investigated by MIOSHA.

"It's always important to keep an accurate count of how many people die related to work," said Rosenman, a professor in MSU's Department of Medicine. "It's important to understand what happened to reduce the chance of this happening to others in the future." 

The Michigan Legislature passed the law that created MIOSHA in 1974 to protect the state's workers.

"One of the ways you do that is assist employers so they can comply with the law. But it's not about protecting them, it's not about protecting companies," said Monforton, the former OSHA official. 

Joseph Seiner, a Troy native and professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said MIOSHA's actions could undermine public confidence in the agency.

"One of the primary goals of a public entity is to maintain the highest level of integrity and thoroughly investigate concerns and health issues, particularly related to a tragic accident," said Seiner, who teaches labor and employment law. "If it shows that's not being done, regardless of the reason, it could undermine public confidence."

'If there's a suicide, there's no benefits'

Lynne Morrison continues to struggle with the aftermath.

She told police that she was "wife, best friend, everything" to her husband, who stood 6 feet tall and sported a goatee and mustache.

The morning of his death, he kissed her shortly after 5 a.m., before heading to work as a journeyman electrician at Little Caesars, she said in a police interview. A few hours later, she was summoned to Detroit Receiving Hospital.

"The doctors came to the room. They said, 'I'm sorry, he didn't suffer.' I screamed and they repeated that they were sorry, he didn't suffer."

She said she didn't speak with him on the phone that morning, that he wouldn't have called until after 9 a.m., his usual break time.

Morrison, she said, was "just a hard worker and would help anyone, wherever help was needed."

Lynne Morrison has been trying since October 2017 to get workers' comp death benefits, including $6,000 in funeral and burial benefits. Alpert, her lawyer, said Morrison's employer is arguing that his death was a suicide in proceedings separate from the MIOSHA case.

"If there's a suicide, there's no benefits, no workers' comp," he said.

Alpert, who specializes in workers' comp, said it is not unusual for a case like hers "to linger this long."

"It's like any other lawsuit. It takes a lot of time. You have to rely on people to give you what you're asking for, when they don't want to give it to you in the first place."

He said he remains convinced Morrison's death was an accident.

And even if Morrison was on that beam, "why would they impute his landing in the seats a suicide and not accident?" Alpert said. "There's no basis for it."

The maximum worker's comp benefit for a death in 2017 is $870 a week, and the amount paid depends on how much income the surviving spouse contributed to the household. Workers' comp death benefits are payable for 500 weeks, but end upon remarriage.

A surviving spouse must be at least partially dependent on the deceased worker to receive any portion of the death benefit, Alpert said. If there are no dependents, there are no death benefits paid to someone like a parent or a sibling. 

Morrison earned $1,400 a week, according to his workers' comp file.

A workers' comp magistrate, a state employee appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Michigan Senate, decides each case based on the evidence, which could include the autopsy.

In Michigan, workers who are injured or killed on the job cannot sue the employer in all but the most egregious cases because workers' comp is considered the "exclusive remedy."

The worker or survivors do not have to prove the employer was at fault, only that the injury or death occurred in the course of employment.  

The injured worker or the surviving family can, however, sue other employers or at-fault parties who may have had a role in a workplace accident.

A lawyer for Motor City Electric's insurance company said in documents filed with the state Workers' Compensation Agency that Morrison's death was not work-related. Thomas Gunton Jr., an attorney representing the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., and Motor City Electric, did not return calls for comment.

"It's deplorable what insurance companies do to injured workers and their families," Alpert said. "Based upon their mere speculation that it was a suicide, when all of the other evidence points to this being a horrible accident."

While Lynne Morrison fights for workers' comp benefits, Barton Malow has scored another big construction project.

Bedrock, one of businessman Dan Gilbert's companies, hired Barton Malow to be construction manager for a new $533 million Wayne County criminal justice center in Detroit.

Bedrock is building the project for Wayne County and is contributing $153 million toward the complex, in exchange for property along Gratiot Avenue where the county's original jail project stalled because of cost overruns.

The new complex, with four buildings, is expected to be completed in 2022.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: A worker's death at a Detroit arena was called a suicide. Some safety experts disagree