In October 2016, an explosion at Mohawk Asphalt Emulsions in Glenville, New York sent two workmen to the hospital with serious burns. The alleged source of the explosion was workers using a blow torch to heat a holding-tank valve, which then ignited the vapors of liquid asphalt. Those two workers ultimately died from their injuries and Mohawk settled two citations for safety violations regarding the incident, paying the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration $17,745 in fines.

Now Mohawk is being sued by the widow of one of the workers who died from the blast, who claims the company and its owners were negligent.

Liquid Asphalt Liability

According to the lawsuit, a crew of Mohawk workers were loading a mixture of 50 percent kerosene and 50 percent asphalt into a tanker-trailer in 2016 when the mixture became clogged in the transfer line. Fifty-six-year-old Joseph Nichols was directed to use a propane blowtorch to heat the line in order to loosen the clog, instead igniting the mixture and causing the explosion.

Karen Nichols’ lawsuit claims the uniform her late husband was wearing at the time of the explosion was flammable. Not only that, a fire extinguisher allegedly malfunctioned when one of Nichols’ co-workers tried to use it to extinguish the flames on him. Nichols was severely burned over much of his body and died two days later. One of the violations for which Mohawk was cited by OSHA was a failure to provide personally protective uniforms to employees handling hot asphalt.

The suit itself doesn’t specify an exact figure for damages, but a lawyer working on the case said “[i]t could be a substantial amount,” according to The Daily Gazette.

Workers’ Comp v. Wrongful Death

Since Nichols died on the job, why weren’t his widow’s claims handled by workers’ compensation benefits? After all, in most cases, employees are prohibited from suing their employers for workplace injuries precisely because they are covered by workers’ compensation insurance.

However, if an employee dies as a result of someone else’s workplace negligence or misconduct, their survivors may be able to file a wrongful death claim. In order to prove such a claim, the survivors must demonstrate:

  • The death of a person;
  • That was due to another’s negligence; and
  • That the surviving family members have suffered some monetary injury as a result of the death.

Karen Nichols’ wrongful death lawsuit is based on Mohawk’s alleged negligence in the accident that killed her husband, and the OSHA settlements may aid her claims.

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