The company in charge of a Fayetteville construction site said a worker's death there is not its fault, and the man's fiancee is not eligible for benefits because the two were not married.
The company responded for the first time, in court documents, to a $75,000 lawsuit claiming their negligence in the worker’s death.
The family of Brannon Rhine filed a lawsuit in federal court last week, saying the 20 year old’s death at The Vue Apartments in May was avoidable and caused by negligence of the supervising company. Business Construction Services, LLC, responded in court documents Friday to the allegations, saying Rhine did not act in accordance with common sense safety measures.
“[T]he danger of an open trench and operating machinery was open and obvious to all,” the company’s response states. The company “pleads comparative fault on the part of the decedent for failure to exercise ordinary care for his own safety, which to bar any right of recovery herein.”
The family attorney Sach Oliver responded, "Anytime we look at one of these cases, we look at is what training is involved, what type of supervision was involved and was safety a priority."
Documents filed by Business Construction Services seek for the lawsuit to be dismissed and denies Rhine’s pregnant fiancée at the time would be eligible for any money sought through the lawsuit. The response states the fiancée is not a beneficiary for Rhine under state law.
Attorney Oliver said he reviewed the court documents. He said attorneys will need to look into the company's claim regarding Rhine's fiancee, but said they can argue that Rhine's baby girl is a beneficiary.
"I know that where the defense was coming from, but what we need to focus on is taking care of Brannon's baby," Oliver said.
Rhine’s fiancée Meagon Capehart gave birth to the couple’s child shortly after his death.
The company’s documents submitted were in response to a lawsuit filed by April Hicks, the administrator of Rhine’s estate. The suit claims the company is at fault for the fatal accident, stating Business Construction Services failed to hire qualified workers and failed to properly train workers, among other safety allegations.
The documents filed in federal court are the only public comment by the company on Rhine’s death. The company failed to answer several phone calls and emails inquiring about Rhine’s death and safety procedures over the last several months.
“Here several rules all laid out in the OSHA report weren’t followed, which caused the hole to collapse on a twenty-year-old man,” said Sach Oliver, a Rogers attorney representing Rhine’s family. “Brannon Rhine should not have died.”
For a case to make it to federal court, the claim has to be a minimum of $75,000, and Oliver said a jury will have the last word on the amount.
"The value of this case is yet to be determined, but one of the factors is the value of life," Oliver said.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a $7,600 fine in July to the company building the Fayetteville apartment complex.
Rhine died May 5 when equipment struck a sewer line, and a hole collapsed around him.
In the citation, OSHA states employees in the excavation were not protected from cave-ins while working in the 6-foot trench.
Oliver said the lawsuit does not seek a specific dollar amount, and it may be up to a jury to decide how much money, if any, to award Rhine’s family.
Rhine’s fiancée says that’s not enough, but she’s glad that OSHA is taking action.
“He didn’t receive any training as a matter of fact and to have him in that hole unsupervised without any shoring or anything like that is ridiculous,” Capehart said.
The trenches are supposed to have stairways, ramps or ladders to allow employees to get in or out. On the day of that deadly accident, OSHA says employees were exposed to ‘slip and fall hazards egressing in and out of a trench greater than five feet deep.’ The excavation did not have safe means of getting in or out of it, according to OSHA.
They also claim that the excavation had not been inspected prior to Rhine’s death.
“I don’t care about money or anything because what I want I can’t have back and that’s my child’s father you know,” Meagon Capehart said. “I’m glad they are doing something about it. I just wish they would do more.”
Capehart was pregnant at the time of Rhine’s death. Their baby girl Isabelle was born on June 15, a month after Rhine died.
“She makes me feel better because I have a piece of him here,” Capehart said.
According to the company, they paid for Rhine’s funeral. His family says they will soon pick out a headstone for him at a Fayetteville Cemetery. Capehart says she’s trying to move on with the support of her family.
“It’s really rough but, you know, I’m trying just to take it day by day.”
Business Construction Services, LCC, declined to comment about the OSHA citations this summer.
Rhine’s was the first of two deaths at the site within a month of each other. In June, 44-year-old Jess Wilson of Joplin was installing siding on a boom lift when police say he struck his head on a high voltage power line, which killed him.
Officials say three other workers were hospitalized in the incident.
“I think it`s a 160,000 volts, each line is 80,000 and it will jump. What I`ve been told is the safe working distance around that line is 30 feet,” said Harley Hunt, Fayetteville Fire Marshal.
“We still don`t know why he was boomed up as high as he was as far as away from the building as he was we`ve had 8 to 10 man lifts in this area for three weeks now with no issues,” added Wilson.
“It was shut down back in April for some fire code requirements that weren`t met in regards to fire access and the required water that`s supposed to be on site,” said Hunt.