Court rules employer can be charged with felony in connection with workplace fatality

Construction company owner knowingly failed to protect workers from trenching hazards

Posted February 26, 2021

The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that an employer can be charged with a felony in connection with a workplace fatality. Second-degree manslaughter charges will be brought against the owner of a now-closed construction company where an employee was killed during a work site trench collapse in 2016.

A Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) investigation found shoring had been installed on only one side of the trench that collapsed, instead of on all four sides. There was also no ladder for entry or exit from the trench. The company owner told inspectors he knew his workers were digging in rain-soaked, “type C” loam-sandy, unstable soil, but it was the employees’ responsibility to know the dangers and determine when shore boards were needed.

It’s rare for an employer to be charged with a felony in connection with an employee’s death. Typically, the business faces a citation and fine when there are safety violations in connection with a workplace fatality.

“There are times when a monetary penalty isn’t enough,” said Joel Sacks, Washington Department of Labor & Industries director. “The court’s decision sends a message to business owners that they can be held criminally accountable and face felony charges if they knowingly fail to protect their workers.”

L&I cited and fined the company after finding a half-dozen safety violations.

This article was written by Rachel Krubsack of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

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