Denver Bar Association
September 2010
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An Attorney’s Adventure - One man’s personal journey into the crane industry

by Ryan Warren

Editor’s note: Article reprinted with permission from Crane Hot Line magazine, June 2010.

 Ryan Warren I broke out in a sweat as I tapped the crane’s controls, desperately trying to keep my load from striking the crane’s outrigger. I knew it was all over if the two touched. I was being watched by people who didn’t think I could handle it.

I’m a lawyer. How did I end up in crane operator’s school? Handling a 50-gallon drum with a large truck-mounted crane was just one moment in my unlikely adventure to become a certified crane operator. I ended up in such a strange place, at least for a lawyer, through luck, the help of some great people, and a growing fascination with the world of cranes.

Over the years, I’ve built a practice representing construction companies, developers, and owners in litigation, negotiations, and contracts. For a few years I also defended personal injury cases. Then a few years ago I was asked by a large national crane insurer to defend a crane company that was being sued as a result of a major accident here in Colorado.

The complexities of crane accidents

The case was significant. Workers were injured and killed. There was millions in property damage. Due to a provision of Colorado’s worker’s compensation law, all of the companies involved in the project, especially the one most at fault for the accident, were immune from being sued over the injuries and death.

All were immune, that is, except for the crane company. Through the quirks of worker’s compensation law, the crane company was left hanging. Not surprisingly, the crane operator, certified and considered one of the safest the injured worker’s co-employees had ever seen, was being portrayed as a one-man catastrophe by the injured worker’s attorney.

I didn’t know a darned thing about cranes when I started the case. I had hundreds of questions: "What does it take to be a certified operator? What is working in "the blind?" Manito-what?" ("Manitowoc," one of the country’s largest crane manufacturers.)

Luckily, I had some of the most knowledgeable crane people in the country at my fingertips. They answered my questions, taught me about cranes and operators, and helped me understand why my client and its operator simply were not at fault. I achieved a favorable outcome for my client and the operator in this case, and importantly, the case had a curious effect on me — I fell in love with the world of cranes.

More cases defending crane companies and their operators came my way. I liked these cases. The equipment and issues are fascinating; crane accident cases are generally large and complex; and crane-industry people are by-and-large straightforward, honest, and refuse to put up with much. The biggest factor has simply been that I like my clients. They are real people with real businesses, trying their very hardest to do it right and make a living.

A broader experience

One day I was speaking with the owner of a crane training firm, the Crane Institute of America, about one of my cases. It suddenly dawned on me, one of the best ways for me to learn about cranes and the challenges facing crane operators would be to get out from behind my desk and get into a crane. I talked to Jim about my idea and he was immediately enthusiastic and invited me to go through one of the Crane Institute’s courses.

I thought a lot about this over the next few months. I had years of construction and personal injury litigation experience, and I had by now thoroughly learned the regulations and industry standards relating to cranes. The one thing I really didn’t know or understand was what it was like to be an operator.

Operators had described for me their joys, frustrations, and stresses, but I appreciated this only secondhand. I needed to gain some personal insight. So I headed to Florida to attend a Crane Institute of America "Mobile Crane Operator – Hands On" course with six other students, all crane operators with years of experience. They were surprised to learn that I had exactly no experience operating cranes. Then I was reminded why I like this industry when one grizzled and tattooed fellow barked, "Well, hell, that’s a damned fine idea! Welcome!" I started the class with a smile.

It was a whirlwind week. I learned about boom lengths and jib weight deductions and manufacturer’s charts. I learned to have a soft touch while maintaining a hard lookout. I learned it can take a lawyer twice as long to work through a load-chart problem as a crane operator with a high-school education. And I learned one can break out in an immediate sweat when one thinks his load is going to strike an outrigger (the support sticking out of the side of the crane) during a test.

At some point I decided that in addition to completing the course, I was going to go through the Crane Institute Certification, an accredited certification program. Of course, I recognized that that didn’t make me in any way a competent crane operator. And, my certification would be in the smallest class of crane available, but still, I knew I wanted this.

That’s how I came to be a newbie crane operator on the back of a truck-mounted crane moving a barrel full of concrete around like it was stuck in cold molasses. But I made it through the obstacle course within my allotted time and passed my practical exam.

When that "Certified Crane Operator" card came in the mail a few weeks later, I walked around the office showing it off like a little kid. I was pretty proud. And then I pushed ahead in this unlikely adventure to make me a better attorney for crane operators and owners.

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