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Company to challenge $560K state fines in Anchorage worker’s death

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: September 12, 2016
  • Published September 11, 2016

An Anchorage construction firm is contesting more than half a million dollars in fines levied against it by state officials, who say company workers fatally injured a colleague by using heavy equipment to dig him out of a collapsed trench last year.

Hartman Construction's challenge of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development's $560,000 in fines will go before the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Review Board on Oct. 5, during a public hearing in downtown Anchorage. The case stems from the June 16, 2015, death of 23-year-old Samuel Morgan in South Anchorage.

State investigators said Morgan was standing in a 7-foot-deep trench that collapsed as a crew was laying sewer pipe near 91st Avenue and King Street, burying him to the waist. Investigators said company co-owner David Hartman and other workers used two excavators in an attempt to free Morgan, who died at the scene from injuries that an autopsy determined "resulted from being struck by construction equipment."

Hartman Construction worker Samuel Morgan, 23, was killed after a trench collapsed on him on June 16, 2015. (Courtesy Morgan family)

The state initially released several guidelines and reminders of Alaska law governing trench work to avoid future deaths. Its subsequent investigation also found that Hartman employees had marked a previous trench wall collapse with safety cones, but didn't employ reinforcing gear kept at the site to protect against further collapses or have ladders on hand to help workers enter and exit the trench.

When the fines were announced in December, staff with the department said Hartman could request a conference to negotiate a settlement, contest the fines or do nothing.

Deborah Kelly, the director of the state Division of Labor Standards and Safety who oversees the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health program, said Hartman opted to contest the fines the month they were levied.

Hartman Construction officials didn't answer multiple requests for comment on the case Thursday and Friday. Kelly said no additional detail about the nature of Hartman's challenge was available from its filings with the board.

"Their notice of contest just says they are contesting the notification of citation and the penalty in its entirety," Kelly said. "The case was scheduled to go forward in August, and that was delayed until this board meeting in October."

Many companies opt to settle rather than contest state cases, which Kelly said typically involves adjustments to citations and fines, or simply agreeing to "a certain type of abatement" on a company's part. She was unable to discuss whether Hartman had requested a settlement, due to confidentiality provisions.

October's meeting will be the first for the review board in more than two years, according to Kelly, because relatively few state citations ever reach it.

"A small percentage of citations are challenged on a regular basis — it's in the single digits, percentage-wise," Kelly said.

Cassie Morgan, Samuel Morgan's widow, said in a statement Friday that the hearing wouldn't change what happened to her husband last year.

"The Morgan family remains strong in our faith that justice will be served regardless of any efforts to challenge the consequences of the actions taken that day," Morgan wrote. "Our hearts remain broken as our lives have been impacted in the worst way imaginable. We will fight for the truth with unwavering faith and persistence."

Alaska law requires the board to issue a decision on Hartman's challenge within "a reasonable time after the close of the hearing," Kelly said. Both Hartman and the state can appeal the board's decision in state Superior Court.

In the meantime, a criminal case related to the trench collapse remains a possibility. Robert Henderson, an assistant attorney general with the state Office of Special Prosecutions, said Thursday that no decision had yet been reached on whether to charge anyone in connection with Morgan's death.

"That matter is still under review by our office," Henderson said.

The review board hearing, in Suite 102 of the Atwood Building at 550 W. Seventh Ave., is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Oct. 5.

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