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Contractor Blames Worker Buried Alive

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

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An employee who was buried alive at an apartment project in May failed to exercise ordinary care for his own safety, leading to the accident that claimed his life, according to court documents filed Friday (Oct. 4).

Business Construction Services LLC, of San Angelo, denied any wrongdoing in responding to a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of Brannon Rhine, 20, of Springdale, AR.

Rhine, a worker on The Vue Apartments in Fayetteville, AR, had been working in a ditch for underground sewer lines when the trench collapsed May 5 and buried him alive, according to authorities. In July, federal safety regulators hit the company with thousands of dollars in fines after investigating the incident.

Brannon Rhine and fiancee
Family Photo via 5newsonline.com

Brannon Rhine's fiancée, Meagon Capehart, gave birth to their  baby girl a month after Rhine died. The family has filed a wrongful-death suit against Rhine's employers.

"Several rules all laid out in the OSHA report weren't followed, which caused the hole to collapse," one of the attorneys representing Rhine's estate told a local television station.

"Brannon Rhine should not have died." The victim had less than a week on the job, reports said.

Rhine’s fiancée, Meagon Capehart, was pregnant with his child at the time of his death and gave birth to a baby girl a month later, reports said.

The Vue project, near the University of Arkansas campus, has been plagued with problems including the death of a second worker and a fuel spill.

Wrongful-Death Allegations

On Sept. 11, April Hicks, the administrator of Rhine’s estate, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court. The suit alleges that Business Construction Services and general contractor Parkcrest Builders, of Houston, were negligent and failed to use ordinary care for the safety of Rhine and other workers.

Specifically, the contractors are accused of failing to:

  • Hire qualified workers;
  • Train workers in proper safety procedures;
  • Supervise workers;
  • Warn of dangerous conditions;
  • Provide a safe manner of egress and ingress from the excavation;
  • Inspect the excavations by a competent person before allowing workers to enter the site greater than five feet deep; and
  • Provide a protective system or proper benching and sloping to protect workers form a cave-in.

OSHA Fines Contested

In July, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued $7,600 in fines to Business Construction Services for Rhine’s death.

According to the citations, the company was accused of three serious violations:

  • Exposing employees to slip-and-fall hazards egressing in and out of a trench greater than five feet;
  • Failing to have excavations greater than five feet deep inspected by a competent person before allowing employees to enter; and
  • Not protecting the employee from cave-ins by an adequate protective system.

The OSHA database indicates the company contested the proposed fines July 22; however, it is unclear whether there are more recent events in the case, as the system has not been monitored due to the ongoing government shutdown.

Open Trench, ‘Obvious’ Danger

In its answer to the lawsuit, Business Construction Services sought to dismiss the case, denied the allegations, and said that an open trench and operating machinery was an “open and obvious” danger.

The company “pleads comparative fault on the part of the [employee] for failure to exercise ordinary care for his own safety," which should "bar any right of recovery herein.”

trench
U.S. Department of Labor

Business Construction Services said that an open trench and operating machinery was an "open and obvious" danger. The trench images above do not represent the scene in this case.

Further, the company said that Rhine’s fiancée did not qualify as a beneficiary under state law and would not be eligible for recovery in the lawsuit.

An attorney for Rhine’s estate, Sach Oliver, told a local television station that he knew “where the defense was coming from, but what we need to focus on is taking care of Brannon’s baby.”

The lawsuit does not indicate a specific amount of damages sought, but a jury trial is requested.

Parkcrest Builders has not yet responded to the lawsuit, according to court records.

2nd Worker Death

Federal safety authorities are also investigating another death that occurred at the Vue project—the June death of Jess Wilson, 44, of Joplin, MO.

Wilson was installing siding from a boom lift on the project when he struck his head on a high-voltage power line and was electrocuted, according to reports. Another worker was also injured in that accident.

OSHA officials have until November to issue citations in that case.

   

Tagged categories: Construction; Fatalities; Health and safety; Housing; Laws and litigation; Regulations; Residential Construction

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