Articles Posted in Employer Liability

The well-known organic and health-food manufacturer Amy’s Kitchen is based in California but operates a plant here in Oregon. According to a recent article in the Sonoma Press-Democrat the company is being sued “by four former employees who claim the company systematically put workers at risk through overwork and unsafe conditions.”

At first glance this would appear to be a straightforward worker’s comp dispute. According to the newspaper a key allegation in the lawsuit involves injuries allegedly sustained by one plaintiff while handling large and heavy objects in the plant. While the current lawsuit as reported by the Press-Democrat does not seek damages on the basis of third-party liability issues these are worth exploring on a hypothetical level, because they are a potential factor in many workplace deaths and injury cases.

The key case when considering this sort of third-party liability in Oregon is Kilminster v Day Management Corp (323 Or. 618) which was decided by the Oregon Supreme court in 1996. In that case the estate of a man who died on the job contended that the employer “deliberately did not provide its workers, including decedent, with legally-required safety equipment.” The court also found that the company did not offer necessary safety training to employees and did not have a proper safety plan in place.

A recent article in The Oregonian outlined the details of a $142,000 fine leveled against a Portland excavating company for a fatal job site accident last May.

According to the newspaper a 29-year-old worker died when a trench in which he was working caved-in. Referring to an investigation by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Agency the newspaper writes: “The investigation found two employees were working in an improperly shored trench that was about 10 feet deep… the excavation was incorrectly braced because two pieces of shoring were spaced too far apart to handle unstable soil.” Critically, the newspaper reports that “the company’s owner, who was on site, said he was negligent in allowing his employees to work in such a situation. He said he saw that the shoring was set up about 15 feet apart and he knew that it was not set up correctly.”

The fact that the OSHA has acted to impose a fine is important, but it does not mean that the legal consequences surrounding this incident are over. From a civil law perspective the admission by the owner that he knew he was asking his employees to work in unsafe conditions opens up a number of important questions. This case represents a clear violation of the Employment Liability Act (ORS 654.305 and ORS 654.325), a law whose entire purpose is to make sure workers are not exposed to dangerous conditions.

I have often written about the fact that we tend to think of distracted driving as something that teens and 20-somethings are especially prone to, despite a growing body of evidence identifying this as a problem that affects every age group.

The latest reminder that this is not just a young person’s issue comes from Greenhouse Management magazine. Under the headline “It Can Wait – Even the Job” the magazine offers some pointed advice: “business owners, CEOs, managers and other figures in the corporate world are slower on the uptake than they should be” at a time when for many of us the demands of the office are such that “daily tasks, such as driving to work, can easily become an afterthought when an important call, text or email comes in.”

The article also raises an noteworthy legal point: “Although it is commonly assumed that employees using personal cellphones in their personal vehicles are liable to nobody but themselves in the event of a crash, (President of consulting firm OperationsInc David) Lewis said the argument could be made that employers are responsible for how and when their employees take and return business calls and messages.” As an Oregon distracted driving lawyer I agree with this analysis. It is a basic principle of law that employers are responsible for what employees do during the course and scope of their jobs.

An Oregon car accident near Amity on route 99W sent a highway worker to the hospital last week. According to The Oregonian, a ‘flagger’ employed by a private company was “taken to a Portland hospital with serious injuries” after being struck by a car in the early evening. The Oregon traffic accident occurred near milepost 47 on Route 99W and closed the road to traffic for what the newspaper describes as “an extended period of time.”

The paper reports that the driver remained on the scene and cooperated with police. It also, however, reports that investigators believe “alcohol or drugs may have been a factor” in the incident and that they are considering criminal charges against the driver.

On its surface this might seem like a fairly straightforward Oregon traffic accident case. The specifics, however, raise several interesting legal questions. We would normally suppose a highway worker injured on the job to be covered by workman’s comp, but the fact that the flagger was injured by a third party – the driver – changes the situation in some ways. Most notably, if drugs or alcohol were, indeed, involved in the accident that opens the possibility of a legal claim under Oregon’s social host and dram shop laws against not only the driver but also the individual, bar or liquor store that gave or sold the driver drugs or alcohol. Because Oregon requires training in the specifics of its dram shop laws for all bartenders this sort of liability can be especially difficult to avoid.

On this May Day it is appropriate to pause for a moment and give some thought to workplace safety. With that in mind I’d like to highlight a rather stunning statistic that appeared in the pages of The Oregonian this week: more than 54,000 Americans die every year from workplace-linked causes. That figure was part of a report published by the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety, drawing on data gathered by the federal government.

According to the study, in 2013 (the most recent year for which figures are available) 4,585 workers died on the job in the United States. That figure is far too high, but based on what we all know regarding dangerous jobs such as logging, truck driving or working in certain types of industrial facilities it is, perhaps, not overly surprising for a country the size of ours. In addition to that, however: “an additional 50,000 people die each year from long-term exposure to workplace hazards such as asbestos, silica and benzene, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” the report said, according to The Oregonian.

That figure is, frankly, stunning, especially when one considers that one of the toxic agents named – asbestos – is a product whose dangers have been known for decades. Add to that the paper’s comment that “proven prevention strategies are available for all the major categories which result in worker deaths, including transportation incidents, contacts with objects and equipment, falls, workplace violence, exposure to harmful substances and environments, and fires and explosions” and one has to ask why these numbers are so high.

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 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.

Late last week The Oregonian carried a report about an industrial accident in Canby that raises serious Oregon employer liability law questions. According to the newspaper a 55-year old Silverton man died “after a 1,600-pound steel plate fell from a clamp” and landed on him.

Colleagues rushed to help the stricken man, lifting the plate and administering CPR, according to the newspaper. First responders initially called for an air ambulance “just minutes later, however, firefighters cancelled the helicopter and called for a medical examiner.” The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has opened an investigation into the incident, but one of its most worrisome aspects, based on what we currently know, is the fact that the steel-fabrication plant in question had been cited “for three ‘serious’ violations in the last few years. This trend is particularly troubling because it is relatively new. The plant in question has operated since the 1960s, but all three of its safety citations have come in the last five years.

This raises a number of potential Oregon employer liability law issues. Oregon Revised Statutes, section 654.010, requires employers to “furnish employment and a place of employment which are safe and healthful for employees.” To achieve this employers are required to “adopt and use such practices, means, methods, operations and processes as are reasonably necessary to render such employment and place of employment safe and healthful.” Simply put, this requires employers to do everything they reasonably can to keep a workplace safe, even for workers in potentially high-risk jobs.