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Family Of Amazon Delivery Driver Killed When Tornado Hit Downstate Warehouse Files Lawsuit

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The family of an Amazon delivery driver who was killed when a tornado hit a warehouse in downstate Edwardsville last month has filed a lawsuit against the online retail giant.

Attorneys with Chicago-based Clifford Law Offices filed the lawsuit on Monday in Madison County Circuit Court, on behalf of the family of 26-year-old Austin McEwen, one of six workers who were killed when an EF-3 tornado hit the 1.1-million-square-foot Amazon delivery depot in Edwardsville on Dec. 10.

As CBS 2's Charlie De Mar reported, McEwen's parents accuse Amazon of putting profits over safety, and accuse the company of failing to protect its employees in the new lawsuit.

McEwen tried riding out the storm in a bathroom.

"Sadly, it appears Amazon placed profits first during this holiday season, instead of the safety of our son and the other five families who lost loved ones," said McEwen's mother, Alice McEwen.

Austin McEwen drove for Amazon as an independent contractor. He was 26.

"Amazon knew a tornado was coming, but made the decision to have our son and others work during a peak delivery season for Amazon instead of evacuating the area," said Alice McEwen.

The law firm said Amazon management knew or should have known about the risk of a tornado more than 24 hours before it hit the warehouse, and failed to adhere to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) preparedness plans for severe weather. They said Amazon could have evacuated employees, but instead chose to have them keep working.

The facility also did not have a basement shelter, and no safety plan or adequate emergency plan required by OSHA, according to the law firm.

"Initial reports from those that survived this avoidable tragedy are disturbing. We certainly intend to discover what precautions Amazon could have taken to save lives. Certainly, this entire facility could have been evacuated when it was believed a tornado was en route. It appears that holiday profits took precedence over safety," Clifford Law Offices partner Jack Casciato said in a statement. "We need to find out if training and emergency protocols were in place for those in the building as well as those who entered the building with jobs regularly connected to Amazon outside of the facility."

OSHA has opened an investigation into whether Amazon did enough to protect the workers.

Of the 46 people inside the warehouse at the time the tornado hit, 39 made it to the north side of the building, the site of a shelter in place location. Seven stayed on the south end, and that's where all six fatalities and one injury occurred. That's because on the south side of the building, there is no shelter in place location.

"Unfortunately, Austin McEwen and five others were on the south side of the building, sheltered at the direction of Amazon in a bathroom - and all of this could have been avoided," Casciato said.

Amazon has said in the minutes before the tornado hit, leaders used bullhorns to notify workers on the floor and radios to notify drivers heading toward the facility of the pending twister. The company also has denied claims workers at the warehouse aren't allowed to have cell phones on the job.

OSHA is now joining state and local investigators looking into the deadliest tornado in Illinois in quite a while. Gov. JB Pritzker has said while there's no early indication of code violations, perhaps new codes need to be considered moving forward.

In addition to McEwen, five other people were killed when the tornado hit the warehouse: 29-year-old Clayton Lynn Cope, 46-year-old Larry E. Virden, 62-year-old Kevin D. Dickey, 28-year-old Deandre Morrow, and 34-year-old Etheria Hebb.

"Our son was a very loved individual," said Alice McEwen.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson defended its response to the tornado, and said the warehouse was built up to code:

"This lawsuit misunderstands key facts, such as the difference between various types of severe weather and tornado alerts, as well as the condition and safety of the building. The truth is that this was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely. Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country and, while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down. We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued, and they worked to move people to safety as quickly as possible. We will defend against this lawsuit, but our focus continues to be on supporting our employees and partners, the families who lost loved ones, the surrounding community, and all those affected by the tornadoes."

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