I-Team Investigation: Truck that “shouldn’t have been on road” rolls over city employee


by Adam Walser


Posted on April 26, 2012 at 5:50 PM

Updated Sunday, May 13 at 1:16 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- A severely broken leg, internal injuries and a crushed pelvis are some of the injuries a city employee suffered after his own tow truck rolled over him in August 2011.

The accident came just weeks after an audit found major safety problems at Louisville Metro Public Works and after Mayor Greg Fischer promised “zero tolerance for unsafe work practices”.

The incident happened on August 25, 2011. Butch Konermann, a 27-year-veteran tow truck driver for Louisville Metro Public Works, was towing an illegally parked truck in Old Louisville.

He was under the truck hooking it up, when his wrecker jumped out of gear and rolled on top of him.

His brother, Paul Konermann, says a cyclist riding by likely saved Butch's life. “He got off his bike. He ran up. The guy was a hero,” Paul said.

As the 7,000 pound vehicle lay on top of him, Butch told the biker to get in the wrecker and pull it off of him. Butch miraculously survived, but he spent weeks in intensive care and months in rehab.

“He had two fractures in his left leg, [a] crushed pelvis and some severe internal injuries,” Paul said.

Eight months later, Butch can still barely walk or talk.

John Timm, Butch’s physical therapist, described the therapy Butch received, “When we first started, he was having occupational therapy for an hour, physical therapy for an hour and some days, speech for another hour,” said Timm.

So far, the bills add up to several hundred thousand dollars, all of it paid for by the city.

“It's the taxpayers that are paying the bills. It's not an insurance company, it's the City of Louisville,” added Paul.

To add insult to injury, reports from the police department, a city hired forensic mechanic and the Kentucky OSHA office say the tragedy was preventable.

A certified mechanic hired to analyze wrecker 227 said the truck "should not have been operating" and would not have passed a D.O.T. inspection.

“Brakes were totally worn down, the emergency brake did not work, transmission was so bad that you couldn't tell what gear it was in,” Paul said.

The truck was in the shop 22 times in the year before the accident. Yet, preventive maintenance wasn't performed for up to 15,000 miles. Unit 227 was back on the road just days after the investigation was completed.

WHAS11 obtained records showing that it has been in and out of the shop several times since.

So has unit 223, one of four other Metro Public Works wreckers that the Kentucky OSHA Office identified as having a similar gear shifter problem as the truck that ran over Konermann.

All of those trucks have more than 200,000 miles.

The state fined public works $5,500, indicating the city had no effective training, no vehicle manuals and no regular inspection process for its tow truck drivers

“The City of Louisville touts itself as a first-class city, but after going through everything I've seen, they've got third world safety procedures going on,” Paul Konermann said.

Butch's accident came just a month after Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Public Works Director Ted Pullen held a huge safety kick-off event.

“There can be zero tolerance for unsafe work practices,” Fischer said at the time.

That event followed a scathing audit of Metro Public Works, which showed on the job accident rates of up to 600 percent higher than the industry average and annual workers comp payments in the millions.

Two workers died from on the job injuries during Pullen's tenure.

WHAS11 tried to talk to Pullen and Fischer, but they declined, citing concern over potential litigation.

Public Works issued a statement saying, "As part of standard operating procedure, employees can declare any equipment unsafe at any time if there is a concern about its use on the job."

Yet, the state report says employees told inspectors that if wreckers were sent for service every time an employee reported a problem, there would be nothing to use.

“If they didn't talk to you about that, that calls into question what's going on,” said Metro Council Member Ken Fleming. “I'd like to think they're not hiding anything.”

He calls what happened to Butch Konermann unacceptable. “I hope it's not an epidemic that's replicated throughout Metro Government,” Fleming said.

Just months shy of retirement, Butch plods through grueling therapy.

Meanwhile, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Butch's former co-workers continue pulling cars with the same kind of wreckers.

One issue that Paul Konermann and Councilman Fleming both brought up was a $1.6 million cut in the city's vehicle replacement this year to make up for a budget shortfall.

They are concerned that could result in even more older city vehicles remaining on the road.