State Supreme Court upholds local prosecutor's authority to pursue felony charges in fatal workplace trench collapse

February 17, 2021

OLYMPIA — The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that an employer can be charged with a felony in connection with a workplace fatality.

The recent decision clears the way for the King County Prosecutor to move forward  with second-degree manslaughter charges against Phillip Numrich, owner of the now closed Alki Construction Company in West Seattle. One of Numrich's employees, 36-year-old Harold Felton, was killed during a work site trench collapse in 2016.

Felton was working at a home in West Seattle when the dirt walls of a seven-foot-deep trench he was in collapsed, burying him under more than 6,000 pounds of mud and sand.

It's extremely rare for an employer to be charged with a felony in connection with an employee's death. Typically, the business faces a citation and fine when there are safety violations in connection with a workplace fatality. 

"There are times when a monetary penalty isn't enough," said Joel Sacks, Department of Labor & Industries director. 

Safety violations lead to fatal collapse

An L&I investigation found shoring had been installed on only one side of the trench that collapsed, instead of on all four sides. There was also no ladder for entry or exit from the trench. 

Numrich told L&I investigators he knew his workers were digging in rain-soaked, "type C" loam-sandy, unstable soil, but it was the employees' responsibility to know the dangers and determine when shore boards were needed.

"The nature of the work is dangerous," Numrich told investigators. "There is nothing safe about working with type C soil." Numrich said he had left the work site to get lunch when the trench collapsed. 

"He had a responsibility to protect his employees," Sacks said. "Numrich knew the safet yrules and chose to ignore them."

Sacks added, "The court's decision sends a message to business owners that they can be held criminally accountable and face felony charges if they knowingly fail to protect their workers."

L&I cited and fined Alki Construction after finding a half-dozen safety violations.

Trenching safety requirements

Excavation and trenching are known to be very hazadour work, so there are numerous safety requirements that must be followed, including ensuring trenches four feet deep or more have protective systems in place to prevent the sides from caving in.

Among other requirements, there must be ladders, ramps or other means for workers to safely enter or exit a trench. Daily inspections of trenches are required to monitor soil conditions. Numrich violated these and other workplace safety requirements. 

A trial date for Numrich is expected to be set in coming weeks.