Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

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.

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.

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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