An unexpected tragedy led to the daylong closure of the main government office building for the Town of South Boston, Virginia (VA), on October 28, 2014. A steel vault door weighing several hundred pounds fell off its hinges and landed on an accounts receivable clerk who had been opening the room-sized safe to start her workday.
Though the woman initially survived, she passed away from crush injuries after being airlifted to Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina (NC). Neither town officials nor emergency responders could explain why the unusual workplace accident occurred. Investigations continued throughout the week.
Each time an employee gets injured or killed on the job, determining what went wrong and figuring out how to prevent similar disabling and fatal incidents are imperative. This is especially true when accidents that seemingly should never occur — vault door hinges should be strong enough to never fail — does, in fact, happen.
Two basic questions need to be asked and answered about who bears liability include the following:
- Were significant maintenance milestones missed?
- Did the hinges or door have a design defect that made this kind of equipment failure more likely than predicted?
First, hinges require little attention beyond very occasional lubrication and checks for secure fastening. Letting one or more hinges rust through or work loose, however, could certainly set the stage for a fatal accident like the one in South Boston. Checking the records of when and how the vault’s mechanisms got inspected and serviced should be a priority for police.
Issues related to the third possibility deserve even more special attention. As I know from helping many victims of workplace accidents, risks from poorly made equipment cannot be fully mitigated by following guidelines for safe usage. For instance, a client who had his thumb amputated when an industrial jack slipped had taken every specified precaution. Because the jack’s locking mechanism was misaligned, however, its failure was just a matter of when.
Regarding insurance claims and wrongful death compensation issues, there is no question that the clerk is entitled to Virginia worker’s compensation benefits. Worker’s comp provides payments to workers injured or killed on the job regardless of fault of the employer. The system also usually prevents filing a claim against the employer after benefits are provided.
However, the law normally does not prevent a worker from bringing a separate negligence claim against an outside company that supplies a defective product or, in some cases, that supplies a chemical or substance that is negligently delivered. The estate of the deceased clerk may look into whether a third-party product liability action would be appropriate, particularly if a defect in the vault door was involved.
My Virginia personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I send our sincere condolences to the clerk who lost her life in South Boston. We also hope any defect with the vault is discovered and repaired at other locations so no one else is put at unnecessary danger.
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