Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

An article published this week in The Oregonian focuses on the death of a Jefferson County inmate earlier this year. The newspaper reports that a county judge acquitted three local jail officials on charges of criminally-negligent homicide. Yet the judge also ruled that the officers’ “failure to get medical care for (the inmate) was a ‘gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would have done in this situation.” The clear contradiction between these two conclusions is even more troubling because things like this have happened in Oregon before.

The Oregonian reports that evidence presented at the trial showed that the inmate had been both vomiting and defecating blood for hours before he passed away (the paper reports that the Oregon medical examiner identified a stomach ulcer as the cause of death). A doctor who submitted written testimony for the trial concluded that more timely treatment would have saved the man’s life.

Yet, despite all of this, the court concluded that “there wasn’t enough evidence” linking inaction by the three officers to the man’s death to make the case legally solid. Despite their “deliberate indifference” toward the inmate’s well-being, the guards, according to the judge, bear no legal responsibility for his death. This is outrageous.

Most of my recent blogs on injuries to children have focused on day care centers. A recent article in The Oregonian, that many of the same legal issues apply to older children as well, especially teenagers. These involve both ORS Chapter 124, which covers the abuse of vulnerable people, and a broader set of laws focused on the state’s responsibility to keep the public informed.

The newspaper article focuses on a 14-year-old who arrived in a hospital emergency room with a level of blood alcohol “that would have killed many adults.” The Oregonian reports that “Oregon child protection workers decided not to investigate” this incident, despite being provided with the name of the adult who had supplied the alcohol. The boy later died after being “struck and killed by a pickup truck on US-101 while drinking with friends.”

The paper goes on to note: “Any time a child dies from likely abuse or neglect within a year of child welfare workers being asked to check on the child, the public should be informed. Oregon law requires the state to do a prompt review and disclose what went wrong.”

A recent Associated Press article about the deaths of two workers building a new luxury hotel in the Orlando area caught my eye because it is relevant to workplace safety discussions that often take place here in Oregon.

According to the news agency, “two construction workers fell to their deaths when scaffolding collapsed as they were pouring concrete on the seventh floor or a 16-story hotel under construction near Disney World.” A fire and rescue spokesman is quoted saying that the scaffolding “gave way” for reasons that are still under investigation, “sending two workers plummeting to the ground below.” The hotel being built was a Marriott, and it was a spokesman for the Marriott corporation who addressed the media in the wake of the accident. As is often the case in the hotel industry, however, actual ownership of the building lies elsewhere. According to the AP the building is actually “owned and developed by DCS investment holdings, a private equity group based in West Palm Beach, Florida.” DCS is also managing the construction project itself, according to the news agency.

While the article does not explicitly make this point, it is also fair to assume that a number of subcontractors are also involved. We do not know for certain whether one of those might be a scaffolding company, but such an arrangement would be the norm throughout much of the construction industry.

A recent Associated Press report, republished in The Oregonian, details the legal consequences of a senseless and tragic fire that killed three dozen people in California in December 2016. According to the news agency, 36 people died as a result of “a devastating fire at a dilapidated California warehouse that occurred during an unpermitted concert.”

Under the terms of an agreement with prosecutors two men pled no contest to 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter. Sentencing will take place in August, according to the AP. One man faces up to nine years in prison and the other six years. Both have already been in prison for a year. The defendant facing the longer sentence “rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into an entertainment venue and residences that became known as the ‘Ghost Ship’ before the December 2016 blaze.”

The article quotes a number of the victims’ family members expressing displeasure at the outcome, especially since the defendants are likely to receive credit for time already served and could be released after serving only half of their eventual sentences. It is precisely situations like this that remind us of the importance of our civil courts, where people placed in the kind of impossible situations confronting these family members can seek the justice they feel the criminal system has denied them. Whether in California or Oregon the most obvious claim to be considered here is wrongful death. ORS 30.020 defines this as “the death of a person… caused by the wrongful act or omission of another.” In a case like this the evidence to support such a claim is clear. At the most basic level, the ‘club’ where the fire took place was operating without the proper licenses and permits. Had the owners gone through the required procedures there is every reason to believe that fire marshals would have demanded extensive changes to the facility before allowing it to open to the public.

Lawsuits filed in Tennessee and South Carolina against a guardrail manufacturer whose products are used throughout the country are drawing attention to a potential hazard on highways nationwide. The different reactions of the states where the suits were filed, however, also requires our attention because of the potential legal issues it may create in the months and years to come.

According to a recent article in Claims Journal the lawsuits “accuse the Omaha, Nebraska based Lindsey Corporation of negligence in the design of X-LITE guardrails. Instead of telescoping to absorb impact when vehicles hit them, the guardrails pierced through vehicles, killing one woman and injuring another so severely she had to have a leg amputated, according to the complaints.”

Though Claims Journal reports that the company maintains “that their guardrails still meet federal guidelines” it’s obvious that Lindsey faces serious legal consequences for making and selling a product that many users now believe is defective. But the different responses from Tennessee and South Carolina also deserve our attention. According to Claims Journal “scrutiny of the guardrails has prompted Tennessee and other states to remove them from their roadways, but South Carolina transportation officials said they would leave the rails in place until they are damaged or outlive their lifespan.”

Considering the number of shocking stories that Oregon’s child care system has generated over the last few months one would think that reforming the system would be a priority for everyone involved. Yet as a recent report in The Oregonian details, pushback and outright obstruction on the part of the officials who manage the system is widespread and has continued for years.

Citing a new report by state auditors, the newspaper writes: “Officials as high-ranking as Gov. Kate Brown and former agency director Clyde Saiki repeatedly attempted to reform the system and pointed out key steps to do so, only to have agency leaders abandon those plans.” It goes on to quote the report, saying: “For over a decade, management’s response to crisis and scrutiny has been to reorganize the system, not to effectively plan to fix it.”

The auditor’s report reveals particular problems with the foster care system, according to the newspaper. This includes the striking acknowledgement that the Oregon child welfare “agency hasn’t been tracking its successes and failures in recruiting foster parents.”

In the wake of two Oregon day care deaths in as many months late last year one might have thought that it would be a simple thing to build momentum in the legislature for reform and increased oversight, but in politics things are rarely that simple.

Earlier this month The Oregonian reported that Governor Kate Brown’s initiative to “beef up oversight of day cares” was receiving a “tepid response” in Salem. The paper reports that “the proposal would increase maximum fines for rule-breaking day cares while closing a licensing loophole that can allow bad providers to escape consequences.” At an Oregon House hearing, however, “committee members questioned if the state’s bid to create 14 new positions would actually move the needle and help ensure kids are safe.”

When the legislature does not move as quickly as it should, it is worth remembering that even without changes to current law our courts offer powerful tools for protecting children and enforcing accountability. For example, ORS 163.545 is a relatively short statute defining second-degree child neglect. This is criminal law but when it is invoked it also opens the legal door to civil actions.

The death of a 28-year-old apprentice electrician at a Klamath Falls mill just before Thanksgiving was recently the subject of a long article in The Oregonian. It explored the victim’s life in detail and also considered the broader workplace safety issues this tragedy raises.

According to the newspaper the man’s death was “Oregon’s 68th workplace fatality of 2017.” State records (see link below) indicate that this number grew to 79 by the end of the year. The paper reports that after answering a call for an electrician late in his shift the man fell “through the lid and into an in-ground vat filled with corrosive liquid heated to 170 degrees, which is used to soften logs before they are processed into plywood.” Doctors say his death would have been instantaneous.

After the incident “the company… installed a railing around the roughly 30-foot long vat,” according to the newspaper, but one must ask why such a basic safety precaution was not in place already. As an apprentice electrician regulations required the man to be supervised in such a dangerous area or to have a supervisory waiver from the state. The paper reports that state records indicate there was no waiver in place. Questions should also be raised about the amount of time that passed before the man’s disappearance at work was reported to the police.

The exact details surrounding this week’s horrible train crash in Dupont, Washington, south of Seattle, are still being pieced together. If the media reports that have emerged this week are accurate, however, they paint a picture of an extremely reckless engineer. That, in turn, raises questions about the safety controls and background procedures which Amtrak has – or should have had – in place to prevent exactly this kind of accident.

According to The New York Times, investigators at the crash scene near Tacoma are “focusing on the possibility that the engineer was distracted by a cellphone, another person in his cab or something else when the train barreled into a curve 50 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.” The driver and other members of the train crew, all of whom are currently hospitalized, will also be tested for drug and alcohol use.

As numerous media accounts have noted in the days since the crash, this accident in many ways resembles another fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia in 2015. In that instance the train was also traveling much too quickly, leading it to jump the tracks. An investigation showed that the engineer, who died in the accident, had “lost situational awareness,” according to the Times. The combination of distraction and lack of familiarity with the train’s route is emerging as a focus of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. Monday’s crash took place during the inaugural run of a new Seattle-to-Portland passenger service and took place on a new portion of the route where tracks had recently been upgraded. The paper quotes a rail safety expert asking rhetorically whether the engineer driving Monday’s train was sufficiently familiar with the new portions of the route. “I’m sure there was some familiarization, but the question is, how familiar was he with it?”

Last week it was announced that the family of “a mentally ill inmate in Oregon will receive $2.85 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged the man died of dehydration and starvation after jail staff failed to get him medical treatment during a depressive episode,” according to a report by the Associated Press that was reposted on the website of US News & World Report.

Last August I wrote about a situation in California that has certain similarities to this one. That case resulted in a $5 million settlement. While it is good to see justice done in both of these cases the fact that in both instances it took a human being’s death for prison officials belatedly to acknowledge their duties is a sorry commentary on the state of care in our prisons and mental institutions.

The California case involved a man suffering from schizophrenia. The case here in Oregon focused on a night in April 2015 when a bipolar man was found dead “after refusing to eat, drink or take medication.” According to the AP, shift logs from the Lincoln County, Oregon jail showed that the inmate had exhibited disturbing behavior “for days.” He “dunked his bedding and clothing in his toilet” soiled his cell, “spit out his food and splashed water around his cell until deputies shut off the water,” the news agency reports, citing court papers filed with a federal court in Eugene.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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