Workers' compensation: Cal/OSHA finalizes trench collapse inquiry

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health recently reported its findings after investigating a workplace accident in Daly City that claimed the life of a construction worker last July. The surviving family members of the deceased worker might have already filed a claim for workers' compensation death benefits. The state-regulated insurance program is a no-fault system, so eligibility for benefits does not depend on the outcome of the investigation.

The report indicates that the construction company failed to protect its employees from cave-in hazards. Investigators determined that a crew of construction workers were in a trench of which only the two ends were sloped due to concern over the stability of a nearby utility pole. No steps were taken to secure the sidewalls of the 14-foot deep trench.

Reportedly, one employee reported cracks in the trench wall that warned of an imminent collapse, but two of the workers were ordered to continue their tasks in the trench. When the wall caved-in, one of them managed to escape. Sadly, the second worker -- a 33-year-old man -- was trapped under tons of soil, unable to get out in time. He lost his life in the unprotected trench. Cal/OSHA proposed a fine of over $242,000.

In cases in which an employer's gross negligence caused a California worker's death, the surviving family members might have grounds to pursue additional financial relief by filing a civil lawsuit along with a workers' compensation claim for survivor's benefits. An attorney who is experienced in both wrongful death and workers' compensation can assess the circumstances to determine the viability of a civil claim. A wrongful death claim might lead to more financial benefits than the end-of-life expenses and lost wages typically offered by workers' compensation.

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