Uncovered: Manholes Exposed

An Action News Special Report
February 28, 2008 8:57:46 PM PST
A jury verdict handed down earlier this week is raising concerns over manhole covers after a Center City medical student fell and suffered serious injuries. Marcus Gustafsson suffered a broken back and other injuries after he fell nearly 20-feet down an open manhole cover. A Philadelphia jury awarded him 85 million dollars. Gustafsson says by telling his story he hopes to prevent another tragedy. "You don't think something like that could happen that you just all of a sudden the sidewalk disappears," said Marcus Gustafsson.

And in a flash Marcus Gustafsson says his life and all the aspirations attached to it disappeared as well.

"It's awful to feel like you have no control and to have a dream like that yanked away from you," he said.

Back in June 2004 the medical student was on his usual route to class.

Gustafsson says he started his day as usual, first stopping for a cup of coffee and then heading to his bus stop at 19th and Walnut in Rittenhouse Square.

"And all of a sudden I was just walking down the street and found myself down in a manhole vault," Gustafsson said. "I tried to get up a one point but it was just a horrible awful pain the worst pain I ever felt," he said. "I was just waiting for just praying for to get out of there."

The fall caused a spinal burst fracture that has left Gustaffson in constant pain.

More troubling, he learned the accident could have been prevented.

A homeless person seeking shelter had removed the lid to live inside.

"They knew that there was a systematic problem going back many years," said Gustaffson's attorney Matt Casey.

The company Trigen-Philadelphia owns and operates 475 manholes throughout the city and the one Gustafsson fell inside.

In documents from the court case, manholes in Center City are called "homeless hotels".

Back in February 1995, nine years before Gustaffson's accident, a worker found a homeless man sitting on the lip of an open manhole at Broad and Wood Street.

In that same email, the worker warns it had been like that since "last Friday".

The email also stated that "this was the same location where in mid-January a homeless man had removed grating."

The worker instructed the crew to then "tak-weld" the lid in place.

"There was no company-wide commitment to safety they would tak-weld some of them and what the evidence showed is that they were really doing it to protect their own property," said Casey.

Another email dated January 15, 2001 at 4:05 in the afternoon warns of a "manhole cover" flipped over at 22nd and Saint James.

No one is sent immediately, but a crew is instructed to "stop by this location first thing in the morning". Casey maintains simple solutions like tak-welding the covers down or a locking mechanism could prevent accidents such as the one that injured Gustafsson from happening again.

"It definitely makes me angry that you think that this could have been prevented if people had just taken a few basic steps," said Gustafsson.

In a statement Trigen-Philadelphia told Action News:

"Despite our comprehensive safety and inspection efforts, there have been rare instances of unlawful tampering with manhole covers by third parties over the course of Trigen-Philadelphia's twenty year operating history. The need to maximize public safety by enabling our personnel to gain entrance to manholes during an emergency must be balanced against measures to minimize the risk associated with rare instances of tampering. The case involving Mr. Gustafsson was an extremely unfortunate accident and we extend our sympathies to him and his family. We are committed to evaluating our existing protocols and minimizing the risks to the general public, while also weighing any additional security measures against the ability to quickly access our system during an emergency response incident."

Although the jury returned a 85-million dollar verdict against Trigen, both parties agreed on a 18-million dollar cap to avoid appeals.

Gustafsson received another 4-point-nine million from other defendants in the case.