Some Workers Never Return Home: Understanding Wrongful Death In The U.S. Workplace

Every day, more than 123 million American workers head to their jobs. Whether working administratively within an office or on the front line of manufacturing and production, employees have an intrinsic right and expectation to put in a good day of work for pay, and return safely home afterward. However, for thousands of workers in the United States every year, the work day ends in tragedy and loss of life due to employer negligence.

What defines employer responsibility when it comes to worker safety? If labor laws exist that govern safe environments, why do thousands of families contend with worker fatalities and the loss of loved ones, due to workplace accidents? We will discuss worker rights and legal provisions that families can explore after a tragic workplace fatality.

Some Workers Never Return Home Understanding Wrongful Death In The U.S. Workplace

How Often Does Wrongful Death ‘At Work’ Occur?

Depending on the occupation and workplace setting, there are numerous negligent causes to workplace injuries and fatalities that vary depending on the environment. Construction workers for instance, exhibit a high statistical risk for both injury and wrongful death workplace fatalities, given the nature of their labor and the hazards involved.

Per 2014 statistics, the United States construction industry experiences more than 13 worker deaths every day, averaging approximately 92 skilled laborer deaths per week. In 2014 alone, there were 4,821 worker deaths in the American construction labor industry, or roughly 3.4 deaths per capita for every 100,000 construction workers in the country.

Negligence Factors That Contribute to Workplace Fatalities

Wrongful death in the workplace has substantially decreased for American workers in all sectors in the past fifty years. Changes to legislation now make employers more accountable for safety training and providing a safe work environment for employees. Nonetheless, worker deaths (while declining annually) are still too frequent to ignore, and both federal and state agencies work actively with employers to provide education and resources, as well as punitive fines for unsafe employment practices.

Employer negligence is not the sole factor that contributes to workplace injuries and wrongful death, but it does weigh heavily in most cases. Deliberate negligence should be noted as separate from accidental negligence, where an employer has failed in their due diligence to provide safety training, equipment, and procedures that reduce the risk of injury or fatality for employees.

Wrongful death can also occur when employers have failed to provide security measures that protect employees from violence or harm. For instance, cashiers are frequently the victims of violence and even wrongful death during criminal robberies, and while an employer may not be able to prevent a crime, failing to provide adequate training or security to protect staff may be determined a negligent factor that contributed to wrongful death.

Factors that can be qualified as employer negligence in wrongful death suits include:

1. Premises Negligence

Employers must legally provide a safe work environment. An employer may be negligent if they fail to maintain safe walking areas (indoor or outdoor), railings and hand supports for stairs, balconies or elevated work areas, or removal of slip and fall hazards – such as improperly stored inventory, electrical cords, and other equipment.

2. Hiring Negligence

Whenever an employer hires an employee, background checks should be mandatory to ensure that the new employee is certified, and has appropriate experience and credentials required to safely conduct duties of daily work. Criminal background checks exist in hiring practice to help employers be fully aware of any risks to the safety of the business, or other employee, with any new hire.

An employee with a violent criminal history who assaults an employee or causes harm may result in a wrongful death suit, based on hiring negligence or the failure of the employer to take appropriate steps to reduce risk.

3. Security Negligence

Failure to provide adequate security measures within any workplace environment can result in needless safety risks, injuries, and even fatalities. Employers are required to have a minimum level of security protocols in place, including emergency lighting, trained security personnel, surveillance cameras, and alerts for law enforcement (emergency notifications) particularly if the business involves cash handling and presents a high-risk for robbery.

It is important to note that a wrongful death suit may not involve one specific accident or injury, but can involve prolonged exposure which impacts terminal health conditions. An individual who is exposed to harmful chemicals due to improper labeling and storage, and who dies from exposure or an illness due to prolonged exposure (e.g., cancer or respiratory illness) may qualify for a wrongful death suit against an employer.

Essentially, if the employer has not followed the safety requirements as outlined by federal and state laws, and the result was an injury or death directly attributed to the negligence, the employer may be held legally liable for loss of life, pain and suffering, loss of income, and other compensation to the surviving family of the accident victim.

The Legal Rights Granted to Families to Pursue Legal Action for Wrongful Death

Wrongful death at the workplace results in emotional and financial loss for the surviving family members of the decedent. If there is a surviving spouse of the deceased, that spouse may seek legal damages from the employer by civil suit. If there is no surviving legal spouse or common law partner, the children of the decedent may pursue a liability claim against the employer for wrongful death of a parent. It is important to note that wrongful death claims filed by children of the decedent may be successful if the children are under the age of majority or 18 to 21 years. If, however, the children of the deceased are adults and independently self-supporting, they may not be permitted to make a claim.

Employer negligence must be proven as the sole contributing factor to the death of the employee. If the decedent contributed through personal negligence, including the use of drugs or alcohol while on duty, employer negligence may be disregarded in terms of legal liability. Families should be aware that there are statutes of limitations on wrongful death cases, and family members of the decedent should consult with a personal injury lawyer.

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