Local News

Duke sued over fatal steam explosion

Posted August 26, 2009 3:20 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2009 9:49 p.m. EDT

— 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.