Five charged with manslaughter after Washington trench death

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five charged in trench death
Five charged with manslaughter after trench-collapse death in Washington.
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Five employees on a jobsite in Washington where a worker died in a trench collapse have been charged with manslaughter.

The jobsite’s foreman, site supervisor and site manager are charged with second-degree manslaughter, while two workers who were buried in the trench and survived have been charged with first-degree manslaughter.

The charges were filed August 9 in Lewis County Superior Court for a trench collapse January 9, 2020, in Washington that killed 24-year-old William Franklin Stringer. Stringer’s family received a $12 million settlement following his death from British conglomerate Renewable Energy Systems and its U.S. subsidiaries. RES and affiliates have also been fined $555,674 by  Washington State Labor & Industries for the cave-in that occurred at the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project.

The five men criminally charged in the case are as follows, according to affidavits:

  • Worker Kenneth Phillip DeShazer, 52, California, first-degree manslaughter.
  • Excavator operator Paul Steele Csizsmar, 25, Brantingham, New York, first-degree manslaughter.
  • Site foreman Matthew P. Buckles, 43, Edmond, Oklahoma, second-degree manslaughter.
  • Site manager Kurt D. Schwarting, 32, West Lowville, New York, second-degree manslaughter.
  • Site supervisor Joel Thome, 46, Bakersfield, California, second-degree manslaughter.

First-degree manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $50,000 fine. The charge is defined in the affidavits as "recklessly cause the death of another." Second-degree manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. The charge is defined in the affidavits as "with criminal negligence, did cause the death of another person."

Attempts to reach attorneys for those charged were not successful.

What happened?

The probable cause affidavits described the incident as follows:

On January 9, 2020, Paul Csizsmar, Kenneth DeShazer and Jonathan Stringer were digging a trench to install conduit under a culvert. Joel Thume, site supervisor, outlined the day’s work at a morning meeting. Matthew Buckles was the site foreman. Kurt Schwarting was the site manager.

Thome, Buckles and Schwarting were aware of the depth of the trench to be dug and state requirements for cave-in protection for trenches deeper than 4 feet, and they were aware there was no trench box or other cave-in protection on site, the affidavits said.

Csizsmar was operating an excavator. The trench depth varied from 14 to 15 feet deep.

Before this day, the conduit was being installed with a bore machine. The decision was made to stop using it because of poor weather. This would be the first trench dug at this point on the job for installing conduit.

The conduit got jammed, and DeShazer entered the trench to set up rigging to allow them to pull the conduit under the culvert using the excavator.

Due to poor weather and soil conditions, the trench walls collapsed onto DeShazer, burying him in about one and a half feet of dirt.

Csizsmar and Stringer then jumped in the trench to free DeShazer. That led to a secondary collapse that buried all three men in various depths of soil. Csizsmar freed himself and called for help. DeShazer was able to stay alive by a pocket of air and was rescued. He was flown to a hospital with serious injuries.

Stringer’s body was recovered the next day. He died of asphyxiation due to chest compression by the weight of the soil on top of him.

Fines issued

“At one point, nine or more people took turns entering the still unprotected trench to dig out the buried workers,” the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries said in its July 16, 2020, news release about the violations.

In interviews with the Department of Labor and Industries, DeShazer and Csizsmar said they were longtime employees of the company and were aware no one was supposed to enter a trench deeper than 4 feet without collapse-prevention, and they also acknowledged that such protection was not provided, the affidavits said.

Stringer had been employed for a few months by Aerotek, a temporary agency hired by RES System 3, which was a subcontractor on the project. The general contractor was RES America Construction, according to the Department of Labor & Industries.

The agency said in the release that the soil was unstable from heavy rains and that no trench box or other protections were in place.

The agency proposed the following fines in July 2020 for the incident:

  • $360,874 for RES System 3 for the following alleged violations: no cave-in protection, no competent person trained on trench safety on site, no written safety program tailored to the project, inadequate training, improper ladder extension, and no means of getting out of the trench.
  • $184,800 for RES America Construction for the following alleged violations: not ensuring the subcontractor used cave-in protection, not having a written safety program tailored to the project, inadequate training programs and improper ladder extension.

On February 26, 2021, Stringer’s estate settled for $12 million with RES and affiliates after filing a wrongful-death lawsuit. It is one of the largest wrongful-death settlements for an individual in Washington State history.

Criminal charges infrequent

Criminal charges for a trench collapse are not typical, but in the past six years, prosecutors have been more willing to press charges in trench collapse cases because they are seen as preventable if proper protective measures are put in place.

This marks the second case of criminal charges being filed in Washington. In 2018, a contractor was charged with second-degree manslaughter after one of his workers died in a trench collapse in West Seattle in 2016. That case is still working its way through the court.

In July, a Colorado contractor was sentenced to 10 months in jail after one of his workers died in a trench collapse.

In 2020, a supervisor on the site of a fatal trench collapse in 2017 in Pennsylvania was indicted on a federal charge of making false statements to the government.

In 2019, two separate cases in Virginia and in New York City resulted in manslaughter charges against contractors. That same year, the owner of a Boston drain service company was sentenced to two years in prison for the deaths of two of his workers during a 2016 trench collapse in the city.

Other criminal cases in trench collapses have occurred in Santa Clara County, California (2015), New York City (2016), Ventura County, California (2017), two cases in Pennsylvania (2018), and Morris County, New Jersey (2018).