When employers knowingly fail to protect their workers, they are typically slapped with heavy fines by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), which also administers the state’s workers’ compensation system. But in rare cases, the severity and circumstances of the safety lapses can expose the employer to criminal charges.
That’s the situation Phillip Numrich, owner of the now defunct Alki Construction Company, is facing after the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that he can be charged with a felony in connection with the workplace death of one of his employees, 36-year-old Harold Felton, who was killed in collapsed job-site trench in 2016.
Felton was working at a job site in West Seattle when the dirt walls of a seven-foot-deep trench he was in collapsed, burying him under more than 6,000 pounds of mud and sand, according to an L&I news release.
L&I cited and fined Alki Construction after finding a half-dozen safety violations at the site.
“There are times when a monetary penalty isn’t enough,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks.
One of the findings of an L&I investigation into the fatality was that only one wall of the trench had been shored up with support boards, leaving the other three walls of unstable soil vulnerable to caving in. Additionally, there was no ladder for entry or exit from the trench.
Numrich told L&I investigators he was aware of the risks, but said it was the workers’ responsibility to determine when shore boards were appropriate. He said he had left the job site to get lunch when the trench collapsed.
“He had a responsibility to protect his employees,” Sacks said. “Numrich knew the safety rules and chose to ignore them.”
“The court’s decision sends a message to business owners that they can be held criminally accountable and face felony charges if they knowingly fail to protect their workers,” Sacks added.
While Washington has had comparatively few on-the-job fatalities in recent years, the death of a worker can be devastating for the family they leave behind. Workers’ compensation death benefits are available to surviving family members.
Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us at if you have an injury, fatality, workers’ comp, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.