Dave McNabb is a record holder who would prefer to be just a regular working guy again, but that will never happen. Despite his pain and troubles, he says, “I’m a lucky guy.”Dave McNabb is also one very courageous man, and I’m proud to call him my friend. I just wish that we could have met under better circumstances.
The records that Dave set are records that no one wants. He spent more time, 17 months, at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Burn Center than anyone else, and his medical bills topped $6 million. He has suffered tremendous pain.
Dave is an Army veteran who served his country well and received an honorable discharge in 1989. The story of his devastating injuries began 13 years later, on January 5, 2002. On that day, he was working for Fluor Facility & Plant Services, a division of Fluor, a huge multinational construction and engineering company with a history of changing the names of its divisions and making itself difficult to trace.
Fluor Facility & Plant Services was performing electrical maintenance work at IBM’s Cottle Road manufacturing facility in San Jose, and Dave, who was a young man of 34 at the time, was part of a team whose assignment was to shut down a high voltage transformer and then to clean it. The work was taking place on a weekend so that it would have the least possible effect on the plant’s operations, but the intent was still to finish the job as quickly as possible.
When he reported to work that Saturday, Dave had only six months of experience. He was a technician, not close to even an apprentice electrician, and his assignment that day was to obey orders and to do whatever his supervisors, Brett Avery and John Anacleto of Fluor, and Alex Lepak of IBM, told him to do. By all accounts, Mr. Lepak was the man in complete charge of everything that the Fluor employees did at the IBM plant.
Working around high voltage equipment is inherently dangerous. Dave knew that. He also knew that he didn’t have enough experience to be making any decisions on his own. He trusted his supervisors, and when they gave him an assignment, he carried it out.
That morning, Dave’s assignment was to scavenge a part called an arc chute. While the crew was working on a transformer, someone noticed that it had a broken arc chute, which is a vital ceramic safety device inside a transformer.
Mr. Lepak told Dave and co-worker Brent Specht to check a supply room for a new arc chute. Mr. Lepak told them that if they couldn’t find a chute there, they could scavenge one from a de-energized transformer in another building. Mr. Lepak gave them directions and sent them off, without supervision, to find an arc chute.
When they didn’t find one in the supply room, they went to the other building. Dave had never scavenged a part from a transformer before, and Brent Specht had even less experience than Dave did, but both of them knew that the first safety rule for working around electrical equipment is to be certain that no power is flowing through it.
The men took every step to be certain that no current was moving into the transformer. Mr. Lepak had told them that the power was off in the building. The room was cold, and neither man heard the hum commonly associated with high voltage power transmission equipment. The power center was locked so that it could not be turned on, and a keyed lock secured the switch. Every indication showed that no power was flowing through the equipment.
Another sign of safety was a tag with the handwritten words, “Unit substation not in service.” And the electrical gauges on the power center registered zero, meaning that the unit should have been off and de-energized.
Dave and Brent removed the back panel and saw that they would actually have to remove the front panel to reach the arc chute. They removed that panel and before doing anything else, Dave got his Fluke Voltmeter to test the unit. Before he used it, he tested it in a 110 volt wall socket, and it registered 110 volts, so he knew that the Voltmeter was working properly.
Dave touched the probes on the Voltmeter to the switching gear inside the transformer, and the Voltmeter registered zero. Brent Specht pointedly asked Dave, “Did you test it?” Dave answered, “Yes.”
Then Dave reached into the unit with a wrench to loosen the bolts on the arc chute. In an instant, 12,500 volts surged through him and caused a 35 million watt electrical explosion in his body. The blast threw him against a wall, and actually set him on fire. The unit that was supposed to be de-energized was actually charged with 12,500 volts of electrical power. Brent Specht smothered the flames, but Dave was horribly burned, and his life changed forever.
Every part of Dave’s body had suffered severe damage. As an ambulance crew rushed him to the hospital, he was in such a state of shock that he couldn’t feel the incredible pain. Doctors put him into a medically induced coma for 4 months, and he underwent more than 50 operations and skin grafts.
After Dave regained consciousness, his hospital stay stretched out to those 18 months. His burns were severe, and by the time he left the hospital, his bills were staggering. From the hospital, he went to his parents’ home, and they provided him with the constant care that he needed.
Dave’s bills continued to soar because he required intensive daily care, specialized treatment, and modifications to his home. They were some of his short-term expenses, and we knew that he would also need extensive care for the rest of his life.
Dave’s problems became even worse when his first lawyer proved to be hopeless, not realizing that a 12,500 volt explosion should never have occurred. After 10 months of doing nothing except filing suit in the federal court, the lawyer told Dave that his case was hopeless.
Fortunately for Dave, he and his parents contacted me. I investigated the explosion and discovered that the cause was a dangerous double-wired design. That meant that although all the indicators and safety checks showed that no power was present in the transformer, it was still “hot” with 12,500 volts.
Experts in the field said that the system was such a trap that it could have fooled a highly experienced journeyman electrician just as easily as it fooled Dave.
Armed with that evidence and testimony, I refiled suit against IBM, against the other contractors on the job, and against the managers who ordered Dave, an inexperienced technician, to do the work of a journeyman electrician, but this time in state court, where a jury only needs 9 votes for a verdict, as opposed to the federal court where unamimous juries are the rule.
IBM’s own rules stated that no one could work on circuits with more than 440 volts unless an IBM engineer was present. Both IBM and the contractors violated IBM’s rules.
An engineer familiar with the equipment would have known that even though it was decommissioned, it was still carrying 12,500 volts. If the transformer had simply had a sign warning that even though the power center was “off”, the feeder cables remained energized, Dave would have known of the danger in front of him and he would have gone home at the end of the day.
We reached a final settlement of $15,500,000 to cover the medical expenses that Dave has already incurred and to provide for all of his future care and needs. $15 million sounds like a lot of money, but no one would willingly go through Dave’s suffering for $15 million or any other amount.
The best news of this entire story is that Dave has persevered and maintained his spirit. He wakes up every morning thanking God for another day, and he’s even able to ride his Harley and go fishing. And the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Burn Center were absolutely amazing during Dave’s stay, which was a stay that never should have happened.
Dave’s life will never be the same as it was before the explosion, but he has his dignity and the financial resources to provide for his future. I’m glad that I was there to help him when other lawyers had casted him aside as “hopeless.”
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“When 12,000 volts exploded in front of me, my whole life changed. The first lawyer I hired was slow, visited me once in the hospital and told me my case was hopeless. Ten months later Richard Alexander explained what he could do.
“His empathy was sincere and when he assured me that IBM never should have allowed me to be exposed to 12,000 volts, I knew I was in the right hands. My scars will always be there, but my financial future is secure thanks to Richard Alexander and his firm.
“They are great lawyers for which I am forever grateful. Dick is my lawyer and a friend for life. They don’t come better.”