Oregon took a big step forward today in protecting the rights of consumers and holding bad corporate citizens to account when Governor Kate Brown signed legislation to strengthen consumer rights in class action suits. The new law will also help fund legal aid for our less fortunate neighbors. The bill was the first to be signed into law by the Governor, who took office only last month.

As outlined in a news release issued by Oregon Senate Democrats, “Oregon is one of only a handful of states in the country that allows corporate wrongdoers to keep unclaimed settlement funds. (This law ends) that practice by giving the judge in the case discretion to send up to 50 percent of the unclaimed funds to a non-profit service addressing the damage done in a specific case. The remainder of the money would go to Legal Aid Services of Oregon, providing critical access to civil legal services for those most in need.”

A statement issued by Gov. Brown’s office said, in part, “This law makes Oregon’s class-action laws fair for all Oregonians and ensures that corporations who are responsible compensate for the harm they have caused.” It also, she said “helps support our critically underfunded legal services.”

The newspaper notes that the new law is likely to face court challenges, but the important thing to keep in mind is that this legislation is hardly ground-breaking. Instead, it brings our state into line with practice in much of the rest of the country. One can understand how large corporate wrongdoers might not like that. Until now they have simply been able to pocket unclaimed class action settlement funds. Putting that money to work on behalf of both victims and, more broadly, those in our society least able to stand up to large companies, is only fair and just. I’m proud today to be both a Portland attorney and an Oregonian.

 

The Oregonian: Kate Brown signs class action legal-aid bill, her first as Oregon governor

Oregon Senate Majority Leader’s Office News Release

 

The deaths of three teens in three separate Oregon car crashes earlier this month is leading some observers to call for a rethinking of the state’s teen driving laws, according to The Oregonian.

“In 1999 the state passed a graduated driver’s license law for people under 18, requiring a period of supervised driving and a six-month ban on having other teenagers in the car,” the newspaper notes. Over the first eight years that the law was in effect the result was a dramatic fall in the rate of fatal car crashes involving Oregon teenagers. “The number of crashes involving teen drivers plummeted 29 percent, from 6001 to 4279,” according to the newspaper.

The recent accidents, however, highlight another trend: the fact that accident rates among teens are slowly rising again, leading some analysts to wonder whether the 1999 law has reached the limits of its effectiveness. The newspaper quotes a senior official from the Oregon Department of Transportation saying “with things leveling off, the question from a legislative point of view is what’s the next step? What else can we do?” As a result, according to The Oregonian, the ODOT is urging “lawmakers to put stricter limits on when drivers under 18 can have other teens riding along.”

The proposal is based on research indicating that teens in general, and teenage boys in particular, tend to drive more recklessly when other teens are in the car. Under current law newly-licensed drivers under the age of 18 “are prohibited from having passengers under 20, except for family members, for the first six months after receiving their license. During the second six months, they can ferry no more than three under-20 passengers in the vehicle.” One idea is to extend the time-frame of those restrictions.

As the article also notes, “nationally, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers.” As a Portland auto accident lawyer I see far too many cases involving teens and believe that any measure that might help cut the still-high teen car accident rate is worth considering. There will, of course, be a number of other issues to consider here: will the potential penalties be tough enough to serve as a real deterrent? Will the new laws be subject to primary enforcement (i.e. will police officers, in effect, be able to pull over a car full of teenagers for the express purpose of checking people’s ages). Like all significant legislative proposals making any change will require time and careful consideration. It is, however, a conversation worth having.

 

The Oregonian: Oregon teen driving laws scrutinized after West Linn, Oregon City students’ deaths

An accident last weekend in which a pick-up truck struck and killed three children and left one adult in critical condition is sparking local activism, according to a report by the Associated Press, reprinted in The Oregonian. The accident took place “in or near a crosswalk” at the same intersection where “a pedestrian was fatally struck two months ago and then carried on the roof of the fleeing car for 11 blocks.”

 

Citing the Eugene Register-Guard, the news agency describes the area of the fatal Oregon accident involving children as “a stretch of Main Street that’s seen numerous accidents… a 60-foot-wide, five lane commercial stretch, a local artery with lots of intersections, access points for businesses and pedestrians crossing. It also carries traffic from a state highway, Oregon 126, which goes through Springfield and Eugene as it connects Central Oregon and the Oregon Coast.” Despite the spate of accidents along this one short stretch of road, the AP quotes state and local officials defending the safety measures currently in place.

 

In the latest incident a pick-up truck killed the three children and critically injured a fourth person, a woman, as they were crossing the street near a local grocery store. The children were apparently headed home from the store at the time of the accident. The driver of the truck was reported by AP to be cooperating with the police. This is a significant contrast to the December incident at the same intersection when “police say the driver took a 67-year-old man’s body off her car roof and left him in the street. She’s accused of manslaughter,” AP reports.

 

Perhaps this latest incident will prompt state and local officials to take a closer look at Springfield’s Main Street in general and the area around its intersection with 54th Street in particular. As an Oregon lawyer focusing on both injuries to children and traffic accidents I can say with assurance that these news agency accounts describe too many fatalities in a single, small area for there not to be a broader reconsideration of pedestrian safety measures.

 

AP via The Oregonian: 3 children die when pick-up strikes them while crossing street

AP via The Oregonian: Neighbors decry intersection where 3 children died: ‘Too many people have been killed here.’

 

A recent article in the Homes & Gardens section of The Oregonian noted something that many readers might not know: home inspectors can and do offer advice that goes far beyond highlighting things that need fixing in a house that is about to be sold.

 

The paper quotes Nick Gromicko, author of The Safe Home and a certified Home Inspector, saying “I wrote the book after realizing consumers mistakenly believe they are hiring a home inspector only to find defects in systems and components… more often than not, the home inspector alerts the consumer to safety concerns.” The article goes on to offer important tips on crib safety, preventing furniture hazards that might crush a child (such as an entertainment center or bookcase tipping over), preventing window falls, safety gates and the child-proofing of stairs and railings. All tips, in other words, designed to reduce or eliminate injuries to children.

 

Some of these are essential tips I have written about before, such as installing window stops to prevent children from squeezing through an open window, or a reminder that safety gates are of little use if they do not meet recognized national standards. Other advice, however, falls into the category of ‘things that ought to be obvious but sometimes aren’t.’ For example Gromicko’s reminder that parents should “ensure that… any furniture a child could potentially climb on should be moved away from windows.”

 

Other safety standards are less well-known but equally important. “Dressers, chests of drawers, and armoires should be able to remain upright when any doors or all drawers are open two-thirds of the way, or when one drawer or door is opened and 50 pounds of weight are applied to the front, simulating the weight of a climbing child,” the newspaper notes, citing standards developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials.

 

As an Oregon and Washington lawyer whose cases often involve injuries to children I urge every parent and grandparent to click on the link below and compare your own home to the standards it lays out.

 

The Oregonian: Baby Safety: Check the crib, windows, furniture, railings

A proposal to build a protected bike lane to and through downtown Klamath Falls received a detailed write-up last week in the Herald & News newspaper. While bike lanes are often portrayed mainly as a safety measure – a way to cut down on potentially fatal bicycle accidents – the study cited by the paper makes a compelling argument that protected bike lanes also offer a variety of economic benefits.

 

The study was prepared by two Oregon Institute of Technology students in cooperation with a member of the Klamath Falls City Council and a team from the Sky Lakes Wellness Center.

 

Citing the experience of cities as diverse as New York, San Francisco and Portland the study’s authors say the installation of protected bike lanes has led to “an increase in property values, rents, fewer vacant buildings, as well as fewer automobile and bicycle accidents… additionally, a protected bike lane will help connect neighborhoods to downtown, encouraging more people to go downtown and increase the possibility for more business and new businesses.” It noted that cities that have built the lanes have seen property values along and near the lanes rise by 11 percent.

 

Any major change to local infrastructure, especially one that potentially impacts the entire community, takes time and the Klamath Falls proposal is still at an early stage. It will require further study in terms of its impact on such issues as traffic and parking. Neighborhood groups and local businesses will need to be consulted. “You have to have community buy-in for this to work,” the paper quotes the city councilman saying.

 

As a Portland bicycle accident attorney, however, I am happy both to see that our city is being held up as an example for other Oregon cities and towns and that the benefits of bicycling are being viewed broadly. Eliminating fatal bicycle accidents should always be the first priority, if evidence that protected bike lanes are also an economic boon helps them get built then so much the better.

 

 

The Herald & News: Protected Bike Lanes Offer Multiple Benefits

A recent Associated Press article republished by The Oregonian reported that Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has fined a Salem company and the Oregon Department of Transportation for separate incidents that led to worker deaths. The deaths raise both possible Oregon wrongful death and employment liability law issues but, more immediately, leave open questions about the effectiveness of OSHA’s fines themselves.

 

According to the news agency, citing the East Oregonian newspaper, OSHA fined a Salem-based concrete company “$840 for not ensuring safe work conditions, which led to the death” of a 64-year old man employed by the company. “The company was installing rumble strips at the paving project on Interstate 84 west of Boardman when (he) was run over by a pickup towing equipment operated by another employee.”

 

The agency also fined the state transportation agency $3500 over the death of a highway maintenance crew member who was “paving Highway 320 when a dump truck backed up and ran over him.”

 

The fact that these are workplace safety related incidents raises questions about both wrongful death actions and also possible violations of Oregon’s employment liability laws. These require employers to provide a safe environment for their workers and proper, up-to-date training in the use of all relevant equipment. The bigger question, however, is whether such small fines can really serve as much of a deterrent against future potentially fatal accidents.

 

As a Portland workplace safety attorney one of my main goals is to help ensure that residents of Oregon and Washington have the on-the-job safety they deserve. Our industrial accident laws offer important protections. The relatively small size of the fines levied by OSHA in the wake of these two accidents is evidence of how essential the civil court system is for workers and their families seeking justice and a fair hearing in the wake of accidents like the ones mentioned here.

 

 

The Oregonian: Oregon regulators fine ODOT, Salem company over worker deaths

A newly announced measure in New York designed to make city trucks safer and to prevent fatal truck accidents is worthy of examination by our city government here in Portland and perhaps even by the Oregon legislature as well. According to Gothamist, a NYC-focused website, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that “around 240 of the city’s trucks will soon be outfitted with protective side guards to protect pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.”

 

“The guards, which span the side of the truck from the front to the rear wheel, are intended to protect anyone unfortunate enough to be hit by a truck from becoming trapped underneath it,” according to the article. A quick web search turns up photos of many municipal trucks around the country sporting the guardrails.

 

New York’s initial measure is relatively limited – involving only 240 out of more than 4700 city-owned trucks that could be fitted with the gear – but as a test project it feels like an excellent start. The article notes that “in the UK, side guards are credited with reducing fatalities and severe injuries in side impacts by 61 percent for bicyclists and 20 percent for pedestrians.”

 

The figures for cyclists are particularly striking and certainly make a strong argument for looking further into side guards not only on municipal vehicles here in Oregon but, perhaps, even as a mandatory safety feature on trucks over a certain size (the New York initiative, according to Gothamist, does not apply to trucks weighing less than 10,000 pounds), particularly semi-trucks, which are such a common sight on Oregon’s roads.

 

As a Portland bicycle accident lawyer, and simply as a citizen who has seen far too many preventable accidents on our city’s streets involving pedestrians and cyclists on the one hand and extra-large vehicles on the other, I am encouraged to see New York taking this initiative. We can only hope that the largest city in the country will end up offering an example that smaller cities and towns around America will want to copy.

 

 

Gothamist: NYC Adding Safety Guards to 240 Trucks in 2015

The fatal crash of a commuter train this week near New York City has brought the dangers of grade crossings back into the national spotlight. The MetroNorth train struck an SUV on the tracks in Valhalla NY, in suburban Westchester County, on Wednesday. The crash killed the SUV’s driver as well as five passengers on the train.

 

This transportation accident has resonance even here in Oregon. As I have regularly documented on this blog, Tri-Met’s bus and light-rail systems have suffered several fatal accidents involving pedestrians and bike riders over the last few years. The newspaper notes that nationally “the numbers of accidents and fatalities at rail crossings have fallen steadily, as grade crossings have been eliminated and safety improvements made, according to safety groups.” Still, the numbers nationally remain surprisingly high: in 2013, 2096 accidents led to the deaths of 288 people. That is a reduction of about one-third when compared to 2004, according to the Times, but it is still a surprisingly large number of both accidents and fatalities.

 

The article goes on to note that the New York area, which remains criss-crossed with grade crossings to an extent seen in only a few other cities, has not seen train-car fatalities decline at a similar rate. The paper reports that “since 2003, there have been 125 grade crossing accidents on New Jersey Transit lines, 105 on the Long Island Rail Road and 30 on Metro-North Railroad, according to the latest Federal Railroad Administration data.

 

It is fair to say these accidents are particularly sad because they are so easily preventable. Never stopping your car on the train tracks is advice so self-evident it should not need to be repeated (though in the wake of this week’s crash the Times to offer a helpful, if slightly macabre, primer on what readers should do if their car stalls out on the railroad tracks).

 

As a Portland auto and pedestrian accident attorney I follow issues like this closely. It is easy to dismiss accidents like the one in New York as something unique to more densely populated parts of the country, but to do so would be a mistake. Portland, with its growing mix of cyclists, runners, cars, semi-trucks, buses and light rail is an environment where small lapses in judgment can have life-threatening consequences. That calls for responsible action on every Oregonian’s part, whether they are on foot, on a bike or in a vehicle – but it also calls for greater attention to be paid to these safety issues by public transport systems like Tri-Met and by the railroads (which are generally responsible for maintaining the safety equipment at rail crossings). Signaling equipment that is not up-to-date and properly maintained represents a threat to everyone.

 

 

New York Times: Rail Crossing Accidents Decline Nationwide, but Less So in New York Region

An article published this week in the Salem Statesman-Journal highlights an alarming fact: in this one relatively small city “between December 26 and January 15 three vehicle crashes involving pedestrians resulted in four deaths.”

 

The paper goes on to note that “all three crashes took place in darkness” and that “no drivers have been found to be at fault.” After so many fatal Salem pedestrian accidents in such a short period of time, however, some sort of an investigation is warranted – one that goes beyond the three individual accidents to look at broader traffic, pedestrian and biking patterns in an effort to make the city’s streets safer. The article quotes a 63-year-old South Salem resident who points out that the problem is the city’s large number of unmarked crosswalks. “At least 95 percent of cars do not even slow down, although they are required by law to stop and wait for you to cross,” he said.

 

The sudden rise in fatal pedestrian accidents in Salem is particularly troublesome because at the time of the first one, on December 26, the city had not witnessed a fatal pedestrian accident in over a year. The paper also notes that while fatalities are rare, accidents themselves are not. “Between December 1, 2013 and April 30, 2014 there were 22 pedestrian-related crashes in Salem that injured 25 people, according to data from the Oregon Department of Transportation” the newspaper reports.

 

Though the police run annual pedestrian safety campaigns the recent surge in accidents certainly implies that a new – or at least a broader – approach may be in order.

 

As an Oregon pedestrian accident lawyer I see many cases where relatively small changes to an intersection, speed limit or traffic pattern could increase safety, dramatically reducing the chances of deaths or injuries. The question is whether elected officials will act on evidence like this.

 

 

Salem Statesman-Journal: String of pedestrian deaths in Salem raises questions

The Oregonian is reporting that a fire this week at the Western Star truck factory on Swan Island caused over half a million dollars in damage and has slowed production at the facility. As details of the blaze emerge, it is also becoming apparent that the incident raises significant employment liability law issues and may also merit investigation as a possible Oregon industrial accident.

 

According to the newspaper, “the fire started when sparks created by an employee grinding near the plant’s paint booth ignited flammable liquids in the area. The fire bypassed the sprinkler system and spread to the ceiling.”

 

Here in Oregon an employment liability law claim can be brought against employers who fail to install or properly maintain safety equipment or who don’t give employees the safety training they need to carry out their jobs. Based on the media reports about this factory fire several of these conditions ought at least to be open to examination. Why were flammable materials anywhere near the place where an employee was doing a job that produces sparks? How was it that a fire moving along the ceiling failed to trigger the sprinkler system? Was there flammable residue on the ceiling itself that helped spread the fire and, if so, how did it get there? These questions raise issues related to both training and maintenance procedures at the plant and all need to be examined closely in the days and weeks to come.

 

As a Portland employment liability attorney I look at situations like this and am reminded why we need laws to protect the health and safety of both workers and of people who live near industrial facilities. A company’s bottom line should never be padded at the expense of its employees or the wider community.

 

On a side note, it is also a little shocking to see the paper quoting a company spokesman saying that “idled employees can use sick leave or vacation days to continue to be paid as clean-up continues.” The paper notes that “normal operations could resume Thursday” but it seems rather petty of the company to dock the pay of workers who are unable to do their jobs because the company’s sprinkler system failed to function properly. This, too, is a reminder of the important role our courts play in ensuring fairness in employer-employee relations.

 

 

The Oregonian: Western Star trucks plant partially idled after blaze that caused $510,000 in damages