Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have repeatedly highlighted the fact that contracting out prison services to private companies often leads to tragic results. This is especially true when medical services are among the key government responsibilities put out for bidding.

Case law at both the federal and state levels is clear: when the government takes away someone’s freedom it also assumes responsibility for their well-being. Prisoners may not be a popular constituency among politicians, but that does absolve government of its legal and moral duty to offer adequate care for the people it locks up.

The latest example of this trend can be found in Maine. A recent article on the website of Maine Public Broadcasting outlines a lawsuit brought by “the NAACP’s Maine State Prison chapter… raising allegations of inadequate prison healthcare services. In a report that details the stories of anonymous residents, they allege that heart conditions, infections, diabetes and other serious conditions are being neglected or misdiagnosed by prison healthcare provider, Wellpath LLC.”

If you ask a friend to name a dangerous occupation most people would think first of logging, firefighting or, perhaps, law enforcement. But near the top of nearly any list of dangerous jobs is something few of us think about: working in a poultry plant.

That fact was highlighted by a recent incident in Georgia. According to a report in the New York Times, six people died and 11 were injured late last month when “a line carrying liquid nitrogen ruptured.” One of the injured people who required hospitalization was a firefighter responding to the incident.

Union officials accused the plant’s owners of negligence and of ignoring health and safety protocols. According to the newspaper, in 2015 the plant “was fined more than $100,000 for about a dozen safety violations.” Another $40,000 in fines followed the next year and “in 2017, two employees underwent amputations, including one of two fingers after his left hand got caught in machinery that he was cleaning.”

I have used this space more than once to focus on healthcare and prisons, with a particular emphasis on Wellpath. The Tennessee-based company touts itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments.” In plain English, that means they are a for-profit company that provides medical care in jails and prisons nationwide.

As I noted in a post last October, Wellpath is frequently sued for being deliberately indifferent to their patient/inmate’s constitutional right to adequate medical care. A California newspaper reported last year that since 2003 Wellpath has been sued “at least 1,395 times in federal court.” Wrongful death actions figured prominently in this tally.

Recent news from both the east and west coasts has highlighted WellPath’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. That news also raises, yet again, questions about whether the company does everything it should to care for the people placed in its charge.

The death of a 13-year-old boy in a boating accident on Hagg Lake in Washington County has highlighted a number of safety issues we all need to keep in mind during this holiday weekend and in the coming weeks before fall sets in.

According to The Oregonian, the boy died “after he was hit by a motorboat.” A 21-year-old man “was arrested and is facing charges of boating under the influence, second-degree manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person.” The newspaper quotes a Washington County sheriff’s spokesman saying that he was not sure whether the boy was swimming or wading at the time he was struck, but that it is clear the fatal incident occurred “not very far off the shore.”

Terrible tragedies like this always raise a significant number of legal issues. A few of those are touched on by The Oregonian, such as reckless endangerment and BUI (the boating equivalent of DUI), which is specifically governed by ORS 830.325. This statute is far more general than the better known ones governing DUI. A boater violates it by simply operating the boat “under the influence of an intoxicating liquor, cannabis, an inhalant or controlled substance.” The law does not set a legal threshold for “influence”. Related sections explicitly forbid reckless boating (ORS 830.315) and, perhaps significantly, extend liability for reckless activity to the boat’s owner (ORS 830.330).

Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has levied $31,000 in fines on two contractors whose irresponsible conduct led to the deaths of two workers at a music festival in Happy Valley in the summer of 2019, according to The Oregonian.

The paper reports that the two men “were up in a boom lift taking down a shade installation (when) the lift, which was on an incline, tilted and fell.” Both were wearing safety gear, the paper reports, but that did little to help them considering the shockingly long list of standard precautions that their employers failed to take.

“OSHA said two alarm devices on the boom lift had been disabled, one of which would have alerted users that the machine was on uneven terrain. The other would have stopped the platform from moving upward if an employee became pinned between the platform and something overhead. Each company was fined $12,000 for disabling the alarms,” according to the newspaper. One of the two companies was given an additional fine “for not following the instructions provided by the boom lift manufacturer – including not raising the lift while on an uneven surface, maintaining a firm footing on the platform’s floor at all times and not putting the lift in a raised position while the counterweight, used for balance, was on the downward side of the slope.”

Just seven months ago the governor signed a new law designed to improve safety at daycare facilities around Oregon. Yet shortly after New Year’s “Oregon child care regulators imposed first-of-their-kind restrictions… on a Hillsboro day care where an infant died January 6,” according to reporting by The Oregonian. Calling the facility a “serious danger to the health and safety of children… regulators ordered the 24/7 provider to watch over children who are asleep at all times and to increase staffing beyond the baseline required by law.” The facility will also have to stop accepting children under the age of two.

These are the first penalties imposed under the new law, so one might look at them as a sign that the new measures are working. Yet the fact that they were only imposed after a child had died should be cause for concern throughout Oregon. Abuse and neglect are subject to mandatory reporting requirements for many occupations in our state, including anyone working at a daycare center. If the violations of state law were this serious one has to wonder why they were never reported in the days and weeks before the baby died, and also why it took the state more than two weeks after the baby’s death to sanction the center.

Even after penalties have been imposed by the state a tragedy such as this should prompt the bereaved family to consider what remedies the court system can offer. In civil law there are a number of potential ways to probe more deeply into what happened in Hillsboro and to consider who should be held accountable. These could include a wrongful death action under ORS 30.020. The problems identified by the state in sanctioning the daycare center on their face make a case for a claim under ORS 163.545 (Child Neglect in the Second Degree).

An incident last summer at a Corvallis athletic club reads like every parent’s nightmare in condensed form. According to a recent article in The Oregonian “the parents of a 5-year-old boy who drowned in a swimming pool at a Corvallis summer camp have filed a $56.6 million lawsuit, claiming the camp didn’t have a lifeguard on duty who might have seen the boy struggling for life over four minutes last summer.”

According to the newspaper the boy went down a waterslide unattended. He was not wearing a life vest, despite his parents having explicitly told the camp that their son would need a flotation device whenever in the water because he cannot swim. The paper reports that he gasped for air and bobbed up and down dozens of times as he struggled. Several camp staff walked past and did not appear to notice. It was only after he was motionless, face-down in the water that anyone tried to save him. From the paper’s account even these efforts leave many questions. Notably, “one staff member pushed an 8-year-old child who was holding onto the side of the pool toward the middle of the pool and urged the child to grab” the drowning boy.

The Oregonian did not detail the exact nature of the family’s lawsuit, though it is fair to infer that an Oregon wrongful death claim under ORS 30.020 is involved. In addition to the athletic club at which the boy was enrolled in a children’s summer day camp, the suit also names several club employees as well as the Oregon Health Authority and Benton County Environmental Health “saying the agencies were responsible for licensing or inspecting swimming pools.”

The series begins with several examples of prison and jail deaths, followed by a stark statistic: “Since 2008, at least 306 people across the Northwest have died after being taken to a county jail.” Over the course of a three-part investigation published last week Oregon Public Broadcasting, working in cooperation with other public media outlets in Oregon and Washington, offered a detailed, and disturbing, look at the state of health care available to people jailed here in the Pacific Northwest.

Notably, the death statistic does not come from an official source. As OPB reports, “until now, that number was unknown, in part because Oregon and Washington have not comprehensively tracked those deaths in county jails.” In other words: it took a media investigation to determine the extent of the problem, one that OPB calls “a crisis of rising death rates in overburdened jails that have been set up to fail the inmates they are tasked with keeping safe.”

OPB reports that suicide is “by far the leading cause of jail deaths in the Pacific Northwest, (accounting) for nearly half of all cases with a known cause of death.” Yet the issues the series raises concerning negligence and indifference on the part of jail staff are also significant. The series offers a number of examples of inmates who died after being served food to which they were allergic, or whose complaints about serious medical issues were ignored.

The Associated Press recently reported on the sentencing of a woman in Deschutes County to more than 12 years in prison following a December 2017 incident in which she struck and killed a 38-year-old Bend woman who was riding a bike.

The news agency, citing local TV station KTVZ, quotes the Deschutes County Circuit Judge overseeing the trial calling it “the most extreme reckless endangerment case:” he had ever seen. The defendant was convicted “for hitting and killing a cyclist while driving under the influence (of)… nearly a dozen prescription drugs, including her dog’s anxiety pills, at the time of the crash,” the AP reports. Clearly there is a case to be made for punitive damages here.

Though the criminal trial is now over, the question of civil damages is one that may still need to be addressed. Obviously there is a strong case to be made for a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s estate. It is also worth noting that, according to media reports, the woman was “riding with two friends” on a road east of Bend at the time of the accident. The survivors, even if they were not physically injured, may have a strong case to make for damages based on the mental distress they have suffered in the wake of their friend’s death. All of these parties – the decedent’s beneficiaries as well as the other two people impacted by the accident – have a strong claim to punitive damages.

Following up on my recent blog about the dangers in Oregon’s system of uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage an incident on Interstate-5 near Olympia, Washington is bringing similar issues into focus north of the Columbia River.

According to The Olympian an arraignment is scheduled to take place next week for a man “whose vehicle crashed into a 16-year-old Oregon girl” killing her and injuring both the driver himself and two other people. The 40-year-old man from Poulsbo, Washington faces vehicular homicide charges “as well as four counts of reckless endangerment.”

The newspaper reports that the accident took place when one car, which multiple witnesses described as driving erratically, hit two other cars that were stopped in a breakdown lane and waiting for assistance. The 16-year-old who had been driving one of those cars was killed in the accident and her mother was seriously injured. Two other people – the girl’s uncle and brother – were not injured. Also injured was the driver of the erratic car along with his 8-year-old daughter.

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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