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Ohio court affirms additional benefits in trench death

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An industrial firm must pay additional death benefits to the family of a worker killed in an incident involving trench safety violations in an excavation project, according to a Supreme Court of Ohio ruling issued Tuesday, affirming a Tenth District Court of Appeals ruling from 2015.

On July 31, 2005, while employed by West Chester Township, Ohio-based Sunesis Construction Co. as a laborer on a sewer excavation and construction project, Timothy R. Roark was working alone at the bottom of a trench. The trench collapsed, resulting in his death, according to court documents.

The Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation allowed a death claim and awarded benefits to Mr. Roark's dependent children, who later filed a separate application for an additional award based on numerous violations of specific safety requirements that apply to sloping, shoring and bracing to stabilize the sides of trenches and excavations.

In 2008, an Industrial Commission of Ohio hearing officer concluded that Mr. Roark's death was the result of Sunesis's failure to properly support the trench excavation in which he was working and ordered that Sunesis pay an additional award of compensation based on some, but not all, of the alleged violations of Ohio’s safety code, according to court documents. 

Tuesday’s ruling in Sunesis Construction Company v. Industrial Commission of Ohio zeroes in on a writ of mandamus filed with the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Columbus, Ohio, asking the court to rule that the industrial commission “abused its discretion when it issued an award of additional compensation for violation of” several safety requirements mentioned in the application for an additional award, according to documents.

The commission relied on the testimony of Sunesis employees that no one at Sunesis consulted an engineer about the design of the slope of the trench wall and that the sloped wall did not meet accepted engineering requirements, including (U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration) or Sunesis safety standards,” court documents state, adding that the company’s court arguments that the evidence was unsupported “lack merit,” records state.

Sunesis declined comment.