Historic decision: Employer faces jail time for worker’s death in trench collapse

KING COUNTY, Wash. — Six years after a 36-year-old construction worker died in a trench collapse, the man’s boss will serve jail time.

It is the first time in Washington state history that an employer has been criminally held accountable for a worker’s death.

And prosecutors expect there will be more criminal cases like this.

“It seems like a lifetime without the embrace of my husband’s arms,” said Jenna Felton, who has been placed in a historic, yet horrific position as it took the loss of her husband, Herold Felton, for Washington’s legal system to be changed forever.

In court Friday she said, “Safety equipment is indispensable because life is just too precious to lose.”

Prosecutors accused Herold Felton’s boss, Phillip Numrich, of not doing enough to protect his workers.

Numrich was charged with reckless endangerment, making him the first employer in the state to be criminally charged in the death of a worker.

“His overconfidence, lack of forethought, and crass management resulted in the untimely death of my husband,” Jenna Felton said.

Following a plea deal, a judge sentenced Numrich to 45 days in jail.

Herold’s loved ones said the penalty was not enough.

“With all due respect, Judge Diaz, I rise up and I speak out today to say, we don’t agree with this arrangement,” Jenna Felton said in court.

“Damage a tree at a construction site on Yesler Avenue and you pay $36,800. Kill a worker in Washington and the usual fine is less than $5,000,” said Jay Herzmark with SafeWork Washington.

Despite the wishes of Herold’s family, the judge said there was little that could be done given the plea deal.

As Numrich heads to a jail cell, prosecutors insist other employers could soon find themselves in similar situations.

“These cases are where elder abuse was 10 years ago and they are where domestic violence was 40 or 50 years ago,” said the family’s attorney.

As part of Friday’s ruling, Numrich is banned from construction sites.