Judge tosses woman's tornado-related suit against Home Depot

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A federal judge has tossed out a woman’s lawsuit against Home Depot over the deaths of her husband and two children who had sought refuge inside the big-box store destroyed during the devastating 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool threw out Edie Howard Housel’s wrongful-death case Thursday at Home Depot’s request, ruling the woman failed to sufficiently prove any design failures of the 11-year-old store were to blame.

Home Depot had argued that the May 2011 tornado packing 200-mph winds was an act of God, making the lawsuit’s defendants not liable for the deaths of Russell Howard, 5-year-old daughter Harli Howard and 19-month-old son Hayze Howard.

Five other people died in the store that day as the EF5 tornado toppled wall panels onto the Home Depot victims.

The tornado was among the most destructive in U.S. history, carving a mile-wide scar through the southwestern Missouri city. It was blamed for 161 deaths. The twister — measured at the top of the rating scale where winds can reach more than 200 mph — flattened virtually everything in its path, damaging or destroying about 7,500 homes.

A spokesman for Atlanta-based Home Depot, Stephen Holmes, said Friday that while the company welcomes Harpool’s ruling, “it doesn’t diminish our sadness and thoughts for all of the families that suffered losses through the terrible tornado.”

“The fact is we comply with all local codes, and we exceeded the local codes in this jurisdiction,” Holmes added. “This was an (EF5) tornado, and we’re confident the construction of the building would not have helped in that terrible situation.”

Housel’s Joplin attorneys did not return requests for comment, including on whether they planned to appeal.

In his 29-page ruling, Harpool wrote that he “finds (the) plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Home Depot breached a duty that cause the decedents’ deaths.”

“The inferences in this case are deeply stacked and rely on speculation rather than factual foundation such that the ultimate conclusion reached by (the) plaintiff ‘is too remote and has no logical foundation in fact,'” Harpool wrote.