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Workers compensation is the only recourse for a grain bin death even though the employer “willfully violated safety regulations and thereby caused the tragic death of one of its employees,” Nebraska's Supreme Court ruled.
Friday's ruling in Joseph James Teague v. Crossroads Cooperative Association addresses the death of 18-year-old Mr. Teague, who died of asphyxiation after being engulfed by grain in the 58-foot-tall bin he was asked to shovel.
Several hazards were present and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations violated when he entered the bin, the ruling states.
“Teague's supervisor sent Teague into the bin without a lifeline or any other equipment that could prevent engulfment past Teague's waist,” the ruling says. “The Crossroads facility where Teague worked also lacked adequate equipment for a rescue operation if engulfment were to occur, also in violation of OSHA regulations.
“In accordance with Crossroads' customary practices, Teague's supervisor kept the auger running in the bin in order to facilitate extraction of the grain. This was in clear violation of OSHA regulations and created movement of the grain, increasing the engulfment hazard.”
Additionally, the supervisor stepped away momentarily, violating an OSHA mandate to maintain constant communication with an employee in a grain bin.
“When the supervisor returned, Teague was dead,” the court record states. Crossroads eventually pleaded guilty to criminally violating OSHA regulations and paid civil penalties.
Mr. Teague's estate sued Crossroads for wrongful death and assault and battery. But the District Court for Cheyenne County, Neb., ruled the incident an accident with Nebraska's workers comp act providing exclusive jurisdiction, meaning the estate could not sue.
The estate appealed, asserting that because it alleged intentional tortious conduct, Mr. Teague's death was not an accident covered by the act's exclusive jurisdiction.
But the high court disagreed and affirmed the lower court's finding.
“Despite the egregiousness of the employer's conduct, the injury was still an 'accident' as defined by the (workers comp) act,” the Supreme Court ruled.
Federal worksite safety officials this week announced plans to ramp up enforcement efforts in certain southern states to combat a recent rise in construction-related falling deaths.