County Prosecutor in Washington State Indicts Construction Company Owner for Trench Collapse Death

by Katie Tracy

On the morning of January 26, 2016, Seattle police were called to a construction site where a worker, Harold Felton, was trapped in a collapsed trench. By the time officers arrived, the rescue operation had turned into a recovery; Felton, 36, had died at the scene. 

Felton was working as part of a two-man team employed by Alki Construction to replace a sewer line. According to the police report, 10 minutes before the trench collapsed, the man working alongside Felton had moved to another area about 40 feet away to work on another part of the pipe. He heard a worrisome clunk that he thought sounded like tools hitting the pipe, so he went to check on Felton. Unable to find him, he immediately started digging and made a call to his employer and Alki's owner, Phillip Numrich, who had left the worksite to buy lunch. Numrich instructed him to call the police, then headed back to the worksite, where he and the worker continued to dig in an attempt to rescue Felton until first responders arrived at the scene and recovered Felton's body.   

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, according to the police report, Numrich suggested to police that Felton was to blame for his own death, saying, "He must have fallen in the hole. That's the only thing that makes sense. He knew not to go in there. He knew to stay two feet back. Those are the rules." Later that day, Numrich went to Felton's family home, where he gave Felton's father-in-law a different explanation according to the police report. Felton's father-in-law told police that when he asked Numrich why Felton was in the trench, Numrich said he "probably went into the hole to urinate, explaining that in construction you have to go somewhere, and you can't go into houses when you're covered in dirt." 

Despite Numrich's efforts to blame Felton, the truth is that Numrich had sent Felton into a trench that lacked a variety of required safeguards. A Washington Department of Labor and Industries investigation found Numrich had willfully violated safety rules requiring safeguards to prevent trenches from collapsing – the kind of collapse that claimed Felton's life. In fact, investigators discovered three unsecured trenches at the site between four and seven feet in depth that posed a risk of caving in. Alki Construction was also cited for multiple serious violations, including for not having provided so much as a ladder in the trench to allow workers to safely exit. Numrich was cited for another serious violation for having no formal accident prevention program in place to train workers about safety hazards and how to mitigate them. 

The department further concluded that none of this was a surprise to Numrich. He had control of the site, had knowledge of the hazards to workers and himself while inside the trench in the event of a cave-in (crushing and/or death by asphyxiation), and had time to discover and correct the hazards but did not. 

Because of these numerous violations, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries assessed $51,500 in fines. Rather than accept responsibility and pay the fines, Numrich contested the citations. Ultimately, the fines were halved to $25,750, a common and lamentable practice in cases of workplace safety violations. 

The modest fines did not dissuade King County prosecutors from conducting a criminal investigation. Employers in the construction industry know all too well the dangers of trench collapses and the high probability of death should one occur while a worker is inside. (A cubic yard of dry soil weighs about one ton; wet soil is even heavier.) As a Labor and Industries official put it, "This company knew what the safety risks and requirements were, and ignored them." With that in mind, and after a thorough investigation into the incident, prosecutors charged Numrich with manslaughter in the second degree, a felony offense, and a violation of labor safety regulations resulting in a worker's death, a gross misdemeanor. The felony offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and a $20,000 fine; however, under the Washington Sentencing Reform Act, because Numrich doesn't have a criminal history, he's facing a maximum of 27 months imprisonment if convicted. The gross misdemeanor charge carries a punishment of a fine up to $100,000 and/or up to six months imprisonment. 

At Numrich's arraignment earlier this month, prosecutors asked for bail to be set at $20,000 and for the court to issue a no-contact order between Numrich and Harold Felton's family, as well as between Numrich and the other witness who was working with Felton when he died. Numrich's defense lawyer objected to everything. The court issued the no-contact orders but didn't require him to post bail.

Significantly, this is the first case in which a Washington State employer has faced felony charges for a workplace fatality. While it's only the first for Washington, it reflects a growing trend across the country to pursue criminal charges in such cases. Prosecutors are beginning to recognize worker fatalities as potential crimes rather than fluke accidents. To learn more about these cases, visit CPR's Crimes Against Workers database.



© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform