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Should Company Executives Be Criminally Liable for Employee Deaths?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 4,821 employees throughout the United States died on the job in 2014. Thousands more suffered serious injuries in the course of their employment. While many of us tend to write these statistics off as simple “accidents,” the truth is that many employers are negligent with respect to workplace safety standards.

Criminal Prosecutions for Workplace Safety Violations Are Rare

OSHA has the authority to impose fines and other civil penalties against employers who fail to meet certain workplace safety standards. But federal law also makes it a criminal offense when an employer “willfully” violates a workplace safety standard that results in the death of an employee. In these cases, individual officers or directors of the employer may be criminally charged.

A “willful” violation in this context means that a corporate executive or supervisor “disregards” or is “plainly indifferent” to a workplace safety rule or standard imposed by OSHA. This includes any omission or failure to act. It is not a defense for the corporate officer to claim that he or she was unaware of the safety standard.

Unfortunately, the criminal law in this area is more bark than bite. As a recent editorial by Rena Steinzor and Katherine Tracy noted, “With rare exceptions, police and prosecutors treat workplace deaths and injuries as ‘accidents’ that are unforeseeable and therefore not preventable.” Indeed, a PBS Frontline investigation revealed that OSHA itself has only referred about 150 cases of “willful violation” to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal investigation. Only about one-third of those referrals led to prosecution, and just eight cases “resulted in prison sentences for company officials.”

Steinzor and Tracy said that in the absence of any serious threat of criminal prosecution, many employers simply write off civil penalties from OSHA and state regulators “as a cost of doing business.” In other words, it is cheaper to pay a fine than to maintain proper workplace safety standards. This can have terrible consequences for employees. Steinzor and Tracy cited the case of a worker at a bottling plant in Jacksonville, Florida, who died during his first day on the job. According to an OSHA report, the employee was crushed to death by a machine he was not properly trained to operate. OSHA fined the company $110,000, but there was no criminal prosecution, according to Steinzor and Tracy.

Demand the Compensation You Are Owed

Of course, more aggressive criminal prosecutions will not bring back employees who are killed on the job due to improper safety standards. Nor is criminal prosecution a substitute for civil remedies designed to compensate employees and their families for workplace injuries or deaths. The Tennessee workers’ compensation system is designed to provide medical and death benefits to employees.

There may also be cases where an employer or third party may be held liable under regular tort law for an employee’s injuries. An experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer can advise you on the best course of action. If you have been hurt on the job and need to speak with an attorney right away, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law.

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