Lawsuit against Six Companies

The enclosed nature of work in the diversion tunnels and the use of trucks to haul away debris caused a dense buildup of carbon monoxide. It was against the law in Nevada to use gas-powered vehicles under ground, and in 1931 the State Inspector of Mines informed Six Companies that they must stop using gas-powered trucks in the tunnels or face a state lawsuit. Six Companies avoided this lawsuit for several months by various means and continued work on the tunnels until it could no longer be avoided. When the state finally filed charges, Six Companies countered with lawyers from the federal government. The U.S. Attorney’s office argued that because the dam was a federal project, state restrictions did not apply. By the time a decision was reached, the tunnels were almost complete. When the state again tried to forbid Six Companies from using gas-powered trucks, the courts declared that the gas law applied to mining operations of which the dam project should not be included.

As lawyers argued the case, workers watched as their comrades were hospitalized for respiratory problems. When people became very ill or even died after working in the diversion tunnels, company doctors said that it was a form of pneumonia. Most men saw a steady paycheck as more important than their health and continued their work with wariness and never complaints to their managers.

In 1933, six lawsuits were filed against Six Companies. Men claimed that they were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning they received while working in the diversion tunnels. The alleged victims said they were suffering permanent ailments caused by the carbon monoxide during the tunnel excavation, and sought $75,000 each plus lost wages.

Instead of settling out of court, Six Companies decided to play hardball. They hired a private detective to investigate the backgrounds of the six plaintiffs. In court, the investigator was able to detail colorful and unflattering pasts for each of the men filing suit against Six Companies. They even went so far as to hire someone to tempt a plaintiff into carousing through Las Vegas.

The trial turned into a media frenzy and provided plenty of entertainment for Las Vegas residents. Witnesses and plaintiffs were discredited and threats were made. Even more surprising was that more and more men were claiming to have been made ill by the fumes. After numerous dramatic twists and turns, Six Companies finally settled out of court with a total of 50 plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount.