Family demands change after man dies in trench collapse

Family demands change after man dies in trench collapse

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by Karen Zatkulak

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KTVB.COM

Posted on December 3, 2013 at 6:15 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 11 at 12:20 PM

WENDELL, Idaho -- A family is facing both heartache and confusion after a husband, father and son was killed at a construction site.

On September 10th, the 43-year-old man was buried alive when the trench he was working in collapsed and there was no safety gear in place.

THE ACCIDENT

It happened in a back alley, near downtown Wendell. That's where Jerrad Durfee was laying pipe with a co-worker.

His family tells us he was using a jackhammer on a trench that was six feet deep by two feet wide.

It was around 11:30, when his wife Diane heard a call on her husband's scanner that a trench had collapsed.

"I thought, oh it cant be the same trench Jerrad is working on," said Diane Durfee.

But in the next moment her fear became a reality.

"I heard him say, it's Jerrad, it's Jerrad. I've got his head out but he's not breathing. I couldn't walk, I fell to my knees trying to get to the car it was very difficult, I was devastated and very angry it even happened," said Diane.

But the Durfee's anger only grew when they learned the trench Jerrad was working in wasn't safe, and the proper safety equipment wasn't used.

"No protection no, he was bent over with the jack hammer and that's what caused the trench to cave in," said Dewey Durfee, Jerrad's father.

In moments, Jerrad was buried under dirt and the other co-worker on site couldn't dig him out in time.

"That was ugly," said Dewey. "Worst day of my life."

UNSAFE CONSTRUCTION SITE?

Jerrad's father says just days before his death, Jerrad admitted he was nervous about the job, and had never been trained for this work.

"He was saying he didn't want to go back in that trench, he hated it and I said looks dangerous to me," said Dewey.

We learned that the City of Wendell does have a trench box to protect workers from a collapse. A trench box, that wasn't used.

"It's there, it's a block away, and it could have been right there, I need someone to tell me why it wasn't," said Dewey.

We went to City Hall to ask that very question, but only got a statement. It said in part that "work place safety protocol... was not strictly adhered to during this construction project."

We also wanted to know who was in charge of the project. The Durfee's tell us it was the city administrator, Brad Christopherson.

Idaho's Department of Building Safety investigated the incident and talked to Christopherson.

When asked if Durfee had been trained for trench work, he said he was not aware one way or the other.

The investigator also couldn't get answers as to the city's protocol for safety procedures, since the city no longer employed a public works director.

"The biggest thing is no one is accountable, blows me away, mind boggling to me, no one has to be accountable for nothing," said Dewey.

We asked Jerrad's wife if the tragedy could have been prevented.

Diane said, "Yes definitely, I think it's just a senseless loss."

WHAT'S NEXT

The Building Safety report found several recommendations to improve safety and forwarded the report to the Industrial Commission.  The Idaho Industrial Commission did on September 19th issue a stop work and render safe order.  No other action has been taken against the city of Wendell.

Now the family fears another tragedy, while mourning the loss of a son, husband, and father taken too soon. In a trench now covered, and marked by a cross.

"It's just been heartbreaking for all of us, but especially the kids, they miss their dad very much," said Diane.

Jerrad's wife is receiving workers compensation for the loss of her husband, which is a portion of his salary.

They wanted to share their story, in hopes of stricter regulations when it comes to safety procedures on job sites.

We did speak with Brad Christopherson briefly several weeks ago about this story and offered him an interview to explain his role.

Christopherson had known Durfee personally for many years and in his statement said "Jerrad Durfee was a wonderful husband, father, and son; a friend to many, and an outstanding employee of the City of Wendell. The tragic accident that took Jerrad's life is a devastating loss to our entire community."

NO LEGAL ACTION

We talked to one lawyer who calls this a negligent wrongful death, but says the family cannot sue the city.

The family is receiving workers compensation for the death, which is a portion of his salary.

We sat down with Boise attorney Charlie Hepworth who has talked with the Durfee family about the incident.

He tells us the workers comp law means victims legally give up their right to sue for more money even if it's proven that the employer was at fault.

Hepworth says this appears to be a negligent wrongful death case, but the family has no options when it comes to seeking more benefits for the loss of Durfee.

"Unfortunately, as this applies to this family, they would be able to prove fault but the laws that prevent them from pursuing a more generous level of compensation," said Hepworth.

He says had they been able to file a wrongful death lawsuit, each family member could sue for his loss of income, as well as non-economic damages for up to 320,000 dollars.

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