On Sept. 3, 2019, Mason Spurlin was employed with J&M Tank Lines in Sylacauga, Alabama. He had been employed there for a few months when he was tasked with cleaning the inside of a tanker fresh off a delivery. Within an hour of starting that task, Mason was pronounced dead after inhaling toxic fumes inside of the tanker that scorched his lungs. The official autopsy report determined Mason died from “environmental asphyxia.” Mason’s mother and our client, Connie Hay, contacted our law firm to determine what happened to her son and who could be held responsible for his death. Any on-the-job death in Alabama must be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA is tasked with enforcing federal safety regulations in the employment arena and is also tasked with investigating any death in an employment setting. While OSHA’s investigation was pending, Beasley Allen personal injury lawyer Kendall Dunson and our firm’s investigators commenced our own independent investigation on behalf of the family. We were able to gain access to the subject tanker, medical records, and information about the task Mason was performing.
Long before the OSHA report was released, Kendall warned Ms. Hay that the evidence indicated that the employer was responsible for her son’s death. When she asked when Beasley Allen would file suit, Kendall had to explain to her that the Alabama Workers Compensation Statute governs her son’s death; thus, the family would only be entitled to $7,500 since her son died unmarried and with no dependents. Ms. Hay, like most other families who have lost a loved one on the job, was surprised to hear Kendall’s explanation.
The release of the OSHA report was devastating for Ms. Hay as she learned her son’s death could have and should have been prevented. The employer was cited for failing to have and implement a confined space program. A confined space program is required for all employers where employees are required to enter a confined space. A tanker is a confined space. A confined space program and training include atmosphere detection devices, breathing devices, special safety training, and protocols to follow before entering a confined space. If confined space protocols had been followed, Mason Spurlin would not have suffocated alone in that tanker.
After the OSHA findings were explained to Ms. Hay, she was certain the penalties imposed on the employer also justified a lawsuit. Kendall had to explain that we would be glad to file a lawsuit against the employer, but that Alabama law does not allow a lawsuit against an employer under these circumstances. The employer/insurance carrier would gladly pay $7,500 and that is all the family can recover regardless of the employer’s conduct.
After recovering from the legal explanation, Ms. Hay decided to act. With our support, she started calling her state legislator, her state senator, and even the governor’s office seeking to change the law.
Ms. Hay is seeking to increase the benefits available to injured workers and/or the families of loved ones killed on the job. Alternatively, she is seeking an exception to the absolute immunity granted to employers, especially when the employer violates federal safety regulations. Ms. Hay is not alone in her assessment of the need to change Alabama’s Worker Compensation laws. In May of 2017, Judge Pat Ballard, a Circuit Court Judge in Jefferson County Alabama, declared the Alabama Workers Compensation Act unconstitutional. Judge Ballard’s ruling focused in the inadequacy of the benefits available under the statute from the weekly benefits to the predetermined payments set by the Alabama Legislature for losing body parts. The Alabama Legislature has determined an Alabama employee should receive the following benefits if injured or killed on the job:
- Amputated hand: $37,400
- Amputated arm: $48,840
- Amputated thumb: $13,640
- Amputation of any other finger: Less than $10,000
- Death with no dependents: $7,500
These “benefits” are too low to adequately compensate someone forced to live the remainder of their life without an appendage and wholly inadequate to compensate the survivors of a loved one killed on the job. Ms. Hay understands she has an uphill battle because the business community holds a heavy influence on Alabama’s decision-makers. However, she is up for the challenge and we at Beasley Allen support her efforts 100%.
Although Judge Ballard’s decision did not address the immunity granted to employers, the state legislature should explore and consider granting an exception to absolute immunity when the employer violates OSHA safety regulations. Personal injury lawyers at Beasley Allen understand the threat of litigation serves as motivation for employers to comply with safety laws just like the threat of incarceration motivates regular citizens to follow the law.
The caps imposed by the Alabama Workers Compensation statute do not promote compliance and safety. One could argue that the statute promotes ignoring the safety of employees. That’s because employers know they face little to no repercussions in the event of an injury or death.
Unfortunately, Alabama employees and their families are forced to suffer under this scheme that is supposed to benefit employees. The statute is entitled “Workers Compensation” though the compensation afforded is grossly inadequate. Perhaps it should be entitled “Employers’ Protection Statute” since the benefits to employers far outweigh the benefits to employees.
We encourage Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and the leadership in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to support the needed changes in Alabama’s workers compensation laws. Workers in Alabama deserve to be treated fairly and the current laws are patently unfair. If you agree that substantial changes are needed, contact these leaders and let them know how you feel.
If you need more information about Alabama Workers Compensation laws, contact Kendall or another personal injury lawyer in our Personal Injury and Products Liability Section. We have lawyers in Montgomery, Atlanta and Mobile able to assist you with claims of catastrophic injury or death as a result of a workplace accident. Often, we find when investigating an on-the-job injury or death that a defective product is involved. In these cases, a third-party claim against the manufacturer may be able to provide relief for devastated families.
This story appears in the January 2021 issue of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like this, visit the Report online and subscribe.