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Widow of supervisor killed in trench collapse can collect benefits


A small city in South Dakota failed to prove that a supervisor killed in a trench collapse had been engaged in willful misconduct in his failure to use trenching safety precautions and must provide survivor benefits to the man’s widow, the Supreme Court of South Dakota ruled Wednesday.

City of Miller water department superintendent James Bonebright was helping workers install a new underground main in 2016 when a trench collapsed over him, an incident that took his life two days later. The city denied his wife’s claim for survivor benefits after finding that the accident could have been prevented if Mr. Bonebright had followed “proper excavation guidelines,” determining that the supervisor had engaged in “willful misconduct,” which precluded workers compensation benefits, according to documents in Stephanie Bonebright v. City of Miller and SDML Workers' Compensation Fund, filed in Pierre.

His widow, Stephanie Bonebright, appealed to the state Department of Labor, which granted survivor benefits although concluded that “Bonebright had engaged in willful misconduct,” yet the city “had not established that Bonebright's failure to follow safety precautions was a proximate cause of his injury and death.”

On further appeal that willful misconduct was the cause of death, a circuit court affirmed Ms. Bonebright’s survivor benefits but held that the Department of Labor “clearly erred when it found that Bonebright engaged in willful misconduct because the City had habitually disregard(ed) violations of the safety rule,” which became a subject during testimony that the city did not enforce trenching safety rules.

The state’s highest court affirmed, writing that “undisputed facts contained in the record demonstrate that the City did not enforce its safety rules for securing trenches, either historically or at the time of Bonebright's death.”

This, “(e)ven though several city council members, the mayor, and the electrical department superintendent… were present at the job site at various times (on the day of the accident) no one ordered the project stopped or reprimanded Bonebright for his failure to follow trench excavation safety rules,” the ruling states. 





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