Arlington Heights family sues over death in Kuwait

Updated 12/6/2010 5:43 PM
  • The Bruce family. Back row: John Paul Bruce (from left), John Bruce, Michael Bruce. Front row: Patty Bruce.

    The Bruce family. Back row: John Paul Bruce (from left), John Bruce, Michael Bruce. Front row: Patty Bruce. Photo courtesy the Bruce family

John and Patty Bruce had plenty to look forward to in the fall of 2009. Married for 29 years with two children, the Arlington Heights couple eagerly anticipated the life they would enjoy after John retired from his job handling cargo for United Airlines.

It was to include boating and camping, which the couple had enjoyed throughout their married life. And much of it would unfold in their proposed retirement home in Mexico, where they had already purchased property, along with several family members.

But a phone call Oct. 9, 2009, from the military base in Kuwait where John Bruce was working unloading cargo for the U.S. military, shattered the couple's dreams.

A United Airlines supervisor told Patty Bruce her husband had been in an accident. The details were sketchy, but the caller indicated John was conscious, "so I wasn't terribly concerned," Patty Bruce said.

Until the next morning, when she spoke with a representative from International SOS, an organization that aids travelers who fall ill, are injured or are caught up in civil unrest overseas. Only then, when Patty learned her husband was undergoing brain surgery, did the family realize how serious his injuries were.

United flew the family to Kuwait where they discovered the 64-year-old had suffered multiple traumatic injuries after falling from a mobile conveyor belt loader while unloading cargo from the belly of a Boeing 747 used to transport military personnel from the United States to the Al-Mubarak Air Base in Kuwait City.

A week later, Bruce succumbed to his injuries. Patty and his family mourned, while questions about the circumstances of his death persisted.

The Bruce family's attorney claims an employee of CAV International Inc., a South Carolina company that provides air terminal and ground handling support for the U.S. Air Force, was operating a conveyor-belt loader that "catapulted" Bruce onto the tarmac more than 20 feet below. Neither the military nor CAV International contacted the family, Patty Bruce said.

"We wanted answers," she said. "We needed to know what happened."

But the family received neither an explanation, nor an apology. They turned to Chicago attorney Timothy J. Cavanagh, who filed a wrongful-death suit on their behalf Monday in Cook County. The complaint alleges negligence by CAV, The Boeing Co. and NMC/Wollard Inc., manufacturer of the mobile belt loader that caused Bruce's death. The suit seeks damages in excess of $50,000.

Earlier this year, Cavanagh filed a discovery petition seeking evidence from United and CAV, including witness statements, documents and videotape. Documents showed Boeing and NMC/Wollard had no fall protections in place that could have prevented the accident, Cavanagh said. Moreover, witness statements from two servicemen present at the time indicate the CAV employee operating the mobile belt loader "wasn't paying attention when he moved this piece of equipment with John on it," Cavanagh said.

That carelessness may have contributed to her husband's death is a particularly bitter pill for Patty Bruce.

"My husband was very, very safety conscious," she said of her husband, whose United Airlines co-workers renamed the company cafeteria at O'Hare International Airport in his honor.

"He was doing his job to the best of his ability. He was serving his country," she said.

While she's certain no one injured her husband deliberately, Patty Bruce insists she and her children deserve to know the full details of what happened.

CAV has refused to turn over information, citing lack of jurisdiction. Cavanagh disagrees, insisting that "a company that has earned tens of millions of dollars negotiating government contracts in Illinois" should be subject to its liability laws.

"The Bruces are U.S. residents. The companies are U.S. companies and should be subject to the laws of the United States," Cavanagh said.

Neither CAV International nor NMC/Wollard representatives responded to e-mail requests for comment. Through a spokesman, Boeing declined to comment.

Ultimately, Patty Bruce would also like to see NMC/Wollard and Boeing establish safety measures to prevent another similar tragedy. The technology that would protect workers like Bruce is neither sophisticated nor terribly expensive, Cavanagh said, yet it could save someone's life.

"Anything that we could do that would prevent this from happening to someone else would be worth it," Patty Bruce said. "We want answers and we want to know what happened and that it's not going to happen again."