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Family seeks justice after death at landfill
A Stafford woman whose husband died at the regional landfill is looking for justice

 Renee Knippel wraps her arms around daughter Ellie, who was there when her dad suffered a deadly fall in 2007.
PETER CIHELKA/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 7/2/2010

BY JONAS BEALS

When she peered over the edge of the unloading platform, all she saw was a pool of blood and a blood-drenched towel on the asphalt 8 feet below.

Her husband, Bruce, died in Inova Fairfax Hospital nine days later on June 26, 2007. The cause of death was a skull fracture he sustained when he accidentally fell from the unloading area at the dump.

That horrible accident three years ago left a family of two--Renee and her daughter, Ellie, who was there when Knippel fell--and questions about how such a thing could happen in the first place.

TAKING PRECAUTIONS

Stafford resident Samuel Jones was at the Rappahannock Regional Landfill off Eskimo Hill Road that day, throwing bundles of newspapers into the recycling bin. He noticed Bruce Knippel and 3-year-old Ellie doing the same thing. It was Father's Day, and they looked like they were enjoying their time together.

"I was right beside him," Jones said. "He was showing her how to throw stuff in the Dumpster. Next thing I know, he was gone."

Jones was the first person to reach Knippel, 63, who had fallen over the edge onto the concrete pad next to the end of the large, metal container. Jones was also a retired Marine, although he did not know Knippel prior to the fall.

It was a scorching hot day. Jones brought water to Knippel and yelled for help.

"I knew that we couldn't move him," Jones said. "We just had to do the best we could."

Jones said that it took a long time, but an ambulance responded. A medevac helicopter was called in while a couple at the landfill comforted Ellie.

At the landfill today, a low concrete curb surrounds the lip of the raised, oval-shaped unloading area, which overlooks the recycling and waste containers. In the gaps between the roll-off containers, metal railings of various heights sprout from the top of the curb. A 10-foot screen fence stands on the ledge above the recycling containers. Some of those railings were present when Knippel fell, but there was not one installed where he went over.

"I think within 24 hours they put railings up," Jones said.

SUING THE SYSTEM


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Two years prior to Bruce Knippel's death--June 2005--Bill Golden accidentally fell from the unloading platform of the Eskimo Hill landfill into a garbage bin below. He broke his ankle in seven places.

Golden filed lawsuits after the accident. The latest was filed in October 2008 and requested $3 million in damages. The case is still pending.

While there have been other injuries at the landfill over the years, Stafford County Fire and Rescue Chief Rob Brown said the number of ambulance calls to the site has not been unusual--22 calls in the last five years, eight of them for injuries.

--Jonas Beals

GOVERNMENTS AREIMMUNE FROM SUITS

The concept of sovereign immunity came to the United States from English law, where it was not possible to sue the king. Founding fathers thought that sort of immunity would serve their new nation and states well by protecting their limited resources. Today, sovereign immunity is used to protect the public purse and discourage frivolous lawsuits.