Family Files Suit Against Duke For Worker's Death

The family of a master steamfitter who died of the personal injuries he suffered at Duke University last year when a steam pipe ruptured at the Levine Science Research Center has filed suit against the university, seeking funeral costs and other financial damages.


On May 14, 2008, Rayford “Wiley” Cofer, who had been an employee of the university since 2000, died while adjusting a steam valve in the basement of the animal lab building after co-workers on an upper floor worked on a gasket.


The suit says Cofer had opened a valve in the building’s basement “about four turns” when a water hammer erupted, causing steam and hot water to fill the room. The suit says the heat in the room became so intense that Cofer’s credit cards inside his wallet and some other personal belongings on his body melted.


Water in the hallway of the basement was so hot that it burned through the boots of a co-worker who unsuccessfully attempted to rescue Cofer.


Once temperatures had cooled enough for rescue workers to enter the room, they discovered Cofer’s body approximately five feet from the door, face up, with his arms straight in the air in front of him, according to the suit. The suit said a fireman who responded to the scene described Cofer as “frozen in time.”


The her 34-page claim, Cofer’s wife, Suzanne Cofer, alleges negligence on the part of Duke for knowingly operating a steam system that was “defective and inherently dangerous.” The suit claims that for several years, Cofer and others complained of problems with the system. However, the university refused to spend the necessary funds to improve the system.

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