Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

BU prof's death was tragic accident; investigation shows bad policy, but not criminal negligence

I've posted for public download files of the investigation into the matter of Boston University (BU) Professor David K. Jones, who died on September 11, 2021, when he fell through a rusted stairway near a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) station.

When the Suffolk County (Mass.) DA announced in January that no criminal charges would be filed in the death, I requested the investigative files under state public records law. Record Access Officer Claudia Buruca filled my request promptly and kindly (in May; I'm just getting around to it). The ZIP file I created in Dropbox runs about 97.3 megabytes and includes documents, images, and 911 audio, all appropriately redacted by the DA's office to protect the privacy of the decedent and family.

I wrote about the incident here last October. A professor in the School of Public Health at BU (in memoriam) and husband and father of three in Milton, Mass., Jones was a runner and was out training for a marathon. He mounted a stairway on MBTA property in Boston that connected Old Colony Avenue, below, with Columbia Road, passing overhead. Four treads in the uppermost part of the stairway were missing, and Jones fell through, about 20 feet, to his death.

In reference to the DA's decision on criminal charges, I wanted to know more about why the rusted stairway was accessible to Jones. The file (in accordance with subsequent news reporting) revealed that demolition of the stairway had been planned, but was delayed by confusion over what state agency was responsible. In the meantime, the stairway was blocked at top and bottom. The stairway has been demolished since.

A warning: in the following paragraphs I will describe the evidence dispassionately, and the details might be troubling to some readers, especially if you knew Jones.

All photos are from the investigative file.

It appears that the stairway was well blocked at the top by a jersey wall, fencing, and signage. It was not as well blocked at the bottom. There was a high, temporary fence strung across the alighting threshold. Jones would have to have gone around the fence knowingly and deliberately. But doing so was not hard.

A Google Street View image from November 2020 shows the fence footing sitting well past the stairway corner.

At the left end of the alighting handrail, the fencing was anchored to a vertical steel post, which stood upon a rectangular steel footing. A Google Street View image from the preceding year shows the footing set out well past the end of the stair, so the fencing extended across the threshold and then a prophylactic foot or more. Also, while an apparently older image in the investigative file shows a "Danger / No Trespassing" sign affixed to the fence at the bottom of the stairway, that sign appears to have gone missing by the time of the Google Street View image in November 2020.


Accident-scene images show that the footing had migrated to the corner of the stairway footing and angled to 45 degrees. So a narrow gap between the end of the handrail and the start of the fencing left the stairway more readily accessible. Also, the "Danger" sign still is missing.

Either way, it was never very difficult for a person to squeeze around the end of the fence and onto the stairway. There is video surveillance of Jones walking—not running—up the stairs, and then of him falling. But no camera captured how he circumvented the fence at the bottom, nor what happened when he encountered the gap in the stairs.

I had assumed, based on my own experience as a runner, that Jones had run up the stairs, probably looking up and ahead, and lost his footing at the missing treads. So I was surprised to see that he walked up. Also surprising, about nine seconds, give or take, elapsed between his disappearance from camera view, moving up the stairs, and his falling back through the camera view. That's more time than would have been needed to go the rest of the way. One possibility is that he lost his footing, but was able to hold on to something for a short time before falling. Another possibility is that he saw the gap, tried to circumnavigate it, and failed. There's no way to know.

Whatever the unknown circumstances, personally, I am satisfied that the DA made the right call. The delay in demolition of the stairway, the too easily circumventable fencing, and the missing danger sign significantly and unnecessarily exacerbated the risk of injury or death and evidence bad public policy. But the conditions don't, in my mind, rise to the level of criminal negligence, which involves willful ignorance of an obvious risk of harm—much closer to civil recklessness than to civil negligence. For Jones's part, he had to know that he was taking some risk in circumventing the fencing. And I say that mindful that I've made some bad choices myself in the past, so there but for the grace of God....

Rusted treads that had not yet detached.
Even in the absence of criminal negligence, it would be nice to know that the bad practices of demolition delay, circumventable fencing, and missing danger signs are being addressed by the MBTA. To be fair, the MBTA should be lauded for having closed the stairway before an accident happened in the absence of barriers.

At the same time, why did the staircase rust so to begin with? Ironically, Jones worked as a public health scholar studying social risk factors. Bigger questions loom about our aging infrastructure and who pays the price when it fails.

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