Local News

Duke sued over fatal steam explosion

Posted August 26, 2009

— The family of a Duke University maintenance worker killed last year in a steam pipe explosion filed suit against the university Wednesday, alleging negligence in the design and operation of the campus steam system.

Rayford Cofer, 63, a master steamfitter from Franklinton, was in the mechanical room of the Levine Science Research Center when a steam line burst May 14, 2008. An autopsy determined he died from burns to his skin and airways.

Suzanne Cofer, his widow, is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the wrongful death suit.

Duke officials said they have corrected many of the cited issues and have worked to enhance safety throughout the campus.

"Ray Cofer's death was a tragedy for the Duke community, and we join his family and friends in their grief. We now understand that his death was an accident that Duke itself could not have wholly prevented. Duke University is highly committed to maintaining a safe workplace for all employees, and we will continue to place workplace safety among our highest priorities," Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University's vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in a statement late Wednesday. "The suggestion that Duke caused this tragic accident and hid important information is untrue and we intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

The state Department of Labor fined Duke $35,000 for eight safety violations discovered in an investigation of Rayford Cofer's death.


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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Aug 27, 2009

    If Mr. Cofer "knew [Duke] had issues" and "kept a journal (black book)" and "warned Duke of their issues numerous times", then this is great fuel for Duke's attorney.

    Mr. Cofer knew there were safety issues. And, he was a "Master steamer fitter." Unless there was some issue that Duke knew about and failed to act on...this guy would be the main line of defense that Duke counts on to find these sorts of issues.

  • sstrom Aug 27, 2009

    It maybe true that some people are faulting Duke because they don't like them. They have been around for a long time and it is a fact that they are one of the poorest paying medical staffing employers in the area coupled with the fact that they were cited for deficiencies. If they had an ounce of commom sense they would'nt make public statements at the advice of their well paid litigation staff. What they should have said is that they were sorry for the families loss and further state that they would fairly compensate the spouse, make the system better, and dedicate something to his name. That's an honorable response respecting the families dignity and demonstrating good faith. Duke needs to stop wasting money on attorneys and appeal to the public trust to whom they serve.

  • 5-113 FA Retired Aug 27, 2009


    North Carolina General Statutes
    § 95-129 Rights and duties of employers (AKA The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of The Williams Steiger Act of 1970)

    Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury or serious physical harm to his employees;
    (2) Each employer shall comply with occupational safety and health standards or regulations promulgated pursuant to this Article.

  • seankelly15 Aug 27, 2009

    dbcooper41 - I am not sure that you can tie the hydraulic fluid problem with poor facilities management. A subcontractor reused an empty container without Duke's knowledge (and, there were never any illnesses tied to the fluid). A company can have safety violations, but that does not automatically imply negligence. Finally, Duke may settle but it does not mean an admission of negligence - it may be cheaper to simply pay rather than litigate. Many of you have already decided that Duke is at fault based on the fact that you don't like Duke.

  • commonsensical Aug 27, 2009

    I work with hazardous energy in the forms of electricity (1.5 million watts of potential energy), hydraulic and rotating equipment (on the order of 20 tons of mass) on a daily basis. I can't speak for Mr. Cofer, but I myself ALWAYS take the necessary steps to isolate myself from the hazardous energy before I begin work on my equipment. Whether this involves shutting off and putting my personal lock on a valve, or taking 6 hours to coordinate several contractors in order to shut down an electrical distribution system, I ALWAYS make sure it happens. Should my job be threatened for insisting that my work environment is safe, THEN there will be a lawsuit. At least I'll be around to file it personally!

  • jrfergerson Aug 27, 2009

    Seems to me the black book that was kept maybe have contained many things Duke ignored. ype I agree there will be an undisclosed amount settlement to the family so this thing will get hushed.

  • IdoNOTliveinDurham Aug 27, 2009

    Look Duke knew they had issues. Mr. Cofer kept a journal (black book) and Duke knows this. He warned Duke of their issues numerous times.

    Duke is not unlike every corporation we read about only concern with the bottom line dollar. While other corporations are still tighting the belt Duke is starting on a 700 Million dollar construction project around the hospital.

    Duke knows they are at fault and will pay one way or the other.

  • veyor Aug 27, 2009

    Was he not in charge of the maintenance of the pipes?

  • EverythingTicksMeOff Aug 27, 2009

    At least you have to give the family credit for waiting this long to file suit. Usually, they file suit before anyone even knows what happened.

  • dbcooper41 Aug 27, 2009

    to those who bash lawyers for filing suit, consider what it would feel like to have your airways burned by steam. tough way to die.
    duke has a far less than perfect maintenance record, and a very poor reputation in the world of facilities management(remember the hydraulic fluid in the sterilizer?).
    maybe this will help then get their act together.