Logging Accidents/Injuries: A Complex Picture

The recent news that there were three separate logging-related accidents resulting in deaths in Humboldt County underscores the dangers involved with one of our region’s traditional occupations.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists logging as one of the most dangerous of our nation’s work categories.  Logging occurs in rough, remote terrain, with heavy equipment and risk exposures unique to this industry.  When a serious injury or death occurs in the course of timber falling, yarding, or loading, uncovering liability is challenging and requires counsel familiar with the legal terrain of such cases.  Janssen Malloy LLP has handled numerous logging-related wrongful death and injury cases.  These cases presented complex procedural issues involving both liability and insurance coverages.
Most logging wrongful death/injury cases are, by definition, work-related events.  If the logger is working for an employer, there usually is a workers' compensation claim involved, pursuant to the provisions of the California Labor Code.  If that is the case, the workers' compensation remedy is the exclusive remedy for the injured logger with respect to his employer (with some very narrow exceptions, such as where the employer failed to carry workers' compensation insurance coverage for his employees).  But if the injury or death was caused by someone other than the employer, there may be what is termed a “third party action” against that other party or entity.  For example, in a recent case handled by Janssen Malloy LLP, a log truck driver suffered a hand crush injury while locking down a load of redwood logs on a log landing, caused by unsafe handling by another person operating a loader (who was employed by a separate company).  In this example, there was both a workers' compensation claim by the injured log truck driver (under the workers' compensation insurance of his employer) and a third party action against the company that employed the loader operator who caused the injury.  The two matters proceeded in parallel, arising out of the same incident.
The reason it is so important to explore the third party avenue of recovery is that the remedy of workers' compensation is quite limited; it covers medical expenses from the injury and a portion of lost income (in the form of temporary disability), but does not compensate for pain and suffering damages or future wage loss.  Further, so-called “reforms” to the workers' compensation system have practically eliminated vocational rehabilitation training and expenses, and the “reforms” cut the permanent disability payment to an injured worker by nearly two-thirds.  An additional economic reality of the industry itself is that many timber fallers (as just one example) are characterized as “independent contractors,” so that their traditional employers do not have to provide workers' compensation coverage to them.  In this arrangement, the “independent contractors” are often required to provide their own commercial liability insurance policies.  Janssen Malloy LLP has handled several logging cases in which the recovery for the family of a faller killed while in the field came from the independent contractor's commercial liability insurance coverage.
Logging wrongful death/injury cases often also involve OSHA investigations and investigations on behalf of the workers' compensation insurer, and counsel representing the injured worker or the family of the deceased worker must be familiar with the various sources of factual evidence derived from those interviews.  In a case handled by Michael Crowley of Janssen Malloy LLP, a recorded statement taken from the loader operator by a workers' compensation claims investigator completely contradicted the sworn testimony of the operator in his deposition (including uncovering the fact that the operator was fluent in English, when defense counsel in the third party case advised that a translator was needed for his deposition, since the operator could not understand or speak English).  That case settled shortly after that evidence was exposed, for the insurance policy limits of the loader operator’s employer.
The above discussion illustrates just some of the complexities involved in investigating and prosecuting a personal injury case on behalf of an injured timber worker.  The attorneys at Janssen Malloy LLP have extensive experience in litigating such cases on behalf of timber workers and their families, and stand ready to assist if the need arises.