Longtime Lawrence plumbing contractors can’t say they honestly were surprised the mistake happened in 2009, but they did say on Wednesday they would be surprised if it happened again.
As the city of Lawrence on Wednesday reached a $50,000 out-of-court settlement related to the 2009 Austin Stone medical gas case, local experts said they believed the city has since improved its building inspections process as a result of the tragedy.
“I know the city and the engineers are real serious about these issues now,” said Roy Chaney, a longtime Lawrence plumbing contractor who also serves on the city’s Plumbing Board Code of Appeals.
As the Journal-World reported shortly after the accident in 2009, the city’s building inspection division could not produce any documentation that the medical gas system in the newly constructed offices of Dr. S. Kirk Vincent had been inspected by a qualified private firm as required by city code. Stone, a Tonganoxie senior at the time, received serious injuries after he went to Vincent’s office for a routine procedure. Vincent later confirmed the injuries were the result of the medical gas system in his new building being improperly installed.
The installation of medical gas systems is just one example where building codes rely on contractors to hire qualified private firms to conduct inspections rather than have city inspectors undertake the task. The process is called “third-party verification,” and Chaney and others said the city previously took a hands-off approach to ensuring such private inspections had occurred.
“The city hadn’t enforced that third-party verification before,” Chaney said.
City officials as part of the settlement on Wednesday admitted no liability, but they have made significant changes to how they handle medical gas inspections. As previously reported, the city adopted changes several months after the accident that require the city’s building inspections department to have documentation that medical gas lines have been inspected by a qualified private company. The new ordinance also requires the owners or facility managers of buildings with medical gas lines to acknowledge that they’ve received a copy of the inspection report. If the city doesn’t receive such documentation, it won’t allow the building to be occupied.
“It has added a greater level of assurance that the code is being met,” said Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services.
McCullough said he “could not speak to why” the city’s previous practices did not require such documentation.
“I would say that we have traditionally had a comprehensive inspection program, but I think we have managed to make it better with this revision,” McCullough said.
The accident, which left Stone with a series of ongoing medical issues, caught the attention of building officials far and wide, said Herb Warren, the chief building official for the city of Olathe.
“I know that this is far less likely to happen today,” Warren said. “I know that I have talked to building officials around the country, and it has been an eye-opener for lots of people.”
State legislators last session did approve a law making it clear that installers of medical gas systems must have certain training and qualifications.
The Kansas Dental Association supported those changes, but executive director Kevin Robertson said there have been some informal discussions about whether the state law should be strengthened more.
Local plumbers also said the accident highlights the need to make sure plumbers are properly trained in work they attempt to undertake.
“It is a mistake and we all make mistakes, but that is just one you can’t make,” said Denis Wittman, a representative for the local chapter of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union. “There is a man suffering over it. You just can’t make that mistake.”