Criminal prosecution after a workplace injury is very rare. Prosecutors and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are frequently lacking in resources to conduct comprehensive investigations and impose criminal responsibility on companies or employers when workers get hurt. Further, proving the elements of a crime can also be very difficult, even when willful OSHA violations have occurred. It is unfortunate that there are so few criminal prosecutions after workers are hurt or killed because fear of going to jail could be a very strong motivator to ensure that employers actually follow OSHA rules and do what they need to in order to keep their employees safe.
One high-profile case, however, is an exception to the rule. According to Safety News Alert, a CEO is facing the potential for life in prison in connection with the deaths of 29 mine workers. A workers’ compensation lawyer knows that this case is an unusual one, but if the CEO is convicted then it will be a strong lesson to other company leaders that they should never look the other way when safety violations exist within their company.
Criminal Accountability for Workplace Safety Issues
The criminal case arises out of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Hundreds of safety violations existed at the mine, and the CEO allegedly avoided fixing the violations in order to make sure more coal could be produced and more money would be made. Some of the safety violations involved failure to follow laws to ventilate coal dust and methane gas. In April of 2010, the combination of goal dust and methane ignited and caused the death of 29 miners.
After the disaster, an investigation revealed that the CEO may have been aware of the violations and ignored them. A federal grand jury indicted the CEO on four different counts, alleging that the CEO was responsible not just for endangering the mine workers but also for intentionally deceiving federal inspectors who were in charge of mine safety. Among the allegations is a claim that the CEO cut safety staff.
If convicted of the four counts during trial, the CEO could face as long as 31 years in prison. Because he is 64 years old, this could mean that he would face a potential life sentence. Two other former managers at the coal mine have also been charged with criminal acts and pleaded guilty to the charges that they face. When criminal action is taken after a workplace death, it is common for on-site managers and supervisors to be the target of the charges, rather than top company officials. Managers are the ones who usually have actual control over what goes on in a company on a day-to-day basis. Several legal experts have referred to the prosecution of the CEO in this case as “unusual.”
The prosecutors will need to prove that the CEO was an “operator” of the mine to secure a conviction. It may be possible to do this in this case, when usually it is not, because the CEO was so hands-on. For example, he required reports every 30 minutes on the coal production in Upper Big Branch. A mine safety advocate has called this demand by a CEO “unprecedented.”
The trial is likely months away so it remains to be seen whether the CEO is convicted. Hopefully, the very fact of the prosecution will encourage other CEOs to take a more active interest in making sure that their workers are safe.
If you have suffered a work injury in New York, contact the Law Offices of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP today by calling (800) 692-3717 or by visiting http://www.workerslaw.com.