GONZALES — A man whose son was killed last year at River Parishes Community College by a falling piece of safety equipment during an electrical lineman class has brought suit over the young student’s death.
Filed Oct. 28 in the 23rd Judicial District Court, the wrongful death suit alleges negligence without claiming exactly why the equipment, called a harness beam, fell and hit Joshua Wallace, 19, of Prairieville, on the head.
The device fell on Wallace the morning of Oct. 29, 2010, at the college’s Sorrento campus in Ascension Parish.
Named defendants are River Parishes Community College Foundation Inc.; manufacturer Buckingham Manufacturing Co. Inc. of Binghamton, N.Y.; and Wallace’s instructor, Tony Boyd. The suit seeks damages and funeral and burial expenses.
Attorney Mark Boyer, who represents Wallace’s father, Eddie Beard, declined comment this past week. College officials also refused comment Friday because they had not received the suit.
“Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Wallace family,” college spokeswoman Kizzy Payton said in an email Friday.
In interviews, college officials have not provided an answer thus far about why the harness fell, pointing to the Sorrento Police Department as the lead agency into the accident investigation.
Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. has said his department’s investigation stopped when the officers determined no foul play occurred.
The suit may bring to light possible causes of the failure. Similar Buckingham equipment is also used at the Northshore Technical College’s Florida Parishes Campus in Greensburg, Payton said.
Possible indications of the cause have emerged elsewhere.
H. Andrew Batty Jr., Buckingham president, said his product had been altered by the time of the incident in a way “we wouldn’t, and we didn’t do.”
Batty based his assessment on news clips. He said it appears one harness beam was welded on top of another and the top one fell. The harnesses were on a practice power pole in the rear of the college campus.
Batty claimed that college officials later admitted the modification was the reason the harness beam fell.
“We have talked with the school about it, and the school very straightforwardly told us they modified the unit, and that’s what happened,” Batty said in an interview Oct. 28.
He did not identify which college officials spoke to his company. His comments would appear to push legal liability on the college as he faces a lawsuit, but, at the time of the interview, Batty said he was not aware of a suit.
Obtained Friday, a narrative section of the Sorrento police report said six bolts holding the two harnesses together broke, allowing the 200-pound top harness to fall.
College officials provided parts of the Sorrento report in May but it did not include the narrative section.
College spokeswoman Payton said Friday that in May, she provided the parts of the report that Sorrento police had given her.
A harness beam is used to protect students learning to climb power poles. It has a cylindrical base that slides over the top of an electrical pole, like, as Batty said, an upside down “Christmas tree stand.” The hollow cylinder has a beam sticking out horizontally from its top.
Rope is attached to the beam and is designed to protect students if they fall off the pole while climbing it.
It is not clear whether the top harness was supporting Wallace’s weight at the time of the accident.
The Sorrento police narrative says Wallace was three to five feet from the ground, fell to the ground and then was hit by the harness.
On the day of the accident, that information was initially released, but Payton later corrected it and said Wallace was on the ground when the harness hit him.
Buckingham President Batty noted the improper modification allowed two safety beams to extend from the top of one pole.
He said his company sells a harness with two beams and, in December, after the fatal accident, Batty said, the college bought a dual-arm harness. They cost $3,691, he said.
Batty’s allegations appear to align with second-hand claims Wallace’s maternal aunt, Sandra McFerren, made in interviews in May and last month.
McFerren, 58, with whom Wallace was living at the time of his death, alleged Wallace’s instructor, Tony Boyd, told her the harness beam had been modified by the college.
Reached this summer, Boyd declined comment. A follow-up call in late October has not been returned.
McFerren said she and two of her brothers raised Wallace after his mother died when he was a young teenager.
McFerren said Wallace’s maternal grandmother received Wallace’s posthumous diploma in May but their family has not yet received an explanation about her nephew’s death.