Contractor Sentenced to Jail after Trench Death – A First in State’s History

Me Photo Headshot
contractor sentenced in trench death
Harold Felton, 36, was buried January 26, 2016, in a trench collapse in Seattle.
Getty Images

A West Seattle contractor has been sentenced to 45 days in jail and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine following the death of a worker in a trench collapse in 2016. This marks the first time in state history that an employer has been sentenced to jail for a workplace fatality.

Phillip Numrich, owner of Alki Construction, was charged in 2018 by the King County Prosecutor’s Office with second-degree manslaughter and violation of labor safety regulation with death resulting. It was the first time in Washington’s history that an employer had faced a felony charge for a workplace fatality.

In a plea deal with prosecutors, Numrich pleaded guilty to misdemeanor attempted reckless endangerment and was sentenced March 5 to the jail time plus 18 months of probation that limits his contact with the victim’s family and the type of work his company can perform. Alki Construction also pleaded guilty to violations of the Washington Industrial Safety & Health Act and will pay a $25,000 fine.

The charges followed the death of Alki employee Harold Felton, 36, who was buried January 26, 2016, in a trench collapse in Seattle. The narrow trench was beside a home and was 8 to 10 feet deep for the replacement of a sewer pipe. Rain had soaked the type C loam-sandy soil for several days, according to the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, which investigated the collapse.

“We alleged that the defendant’s criminal negligence caused Harold Felton’s death,” Mindy Young, senior deputy prosecuting attorney, said in 2018. “The evidence shows an extraordinary level of negligence surrounding this dangerous worksite."

Numrich told L&I investigators he was aware of the dangers of working in the wet, unstable soil. He had left the site to get lunch, and the trench collapsed on Felton, burying him under 6,000 pounds of dirt.

L&I said Numrich knowingly failed to follow the state’s safety rules, which could have prevented Felton’s death. Numrich had only brought enough shoring equipment for two of the trench’s four sides.

After the collapse, Alki Construction was cited for safety violations resulting in $51,500 in fines, which were later reduced to $25,750 and were paid. The violations included not protecting workers from cave-in; failure to have an accident-prevention program for excavation work; no ladder or other safe way to enter and exit the trench; sidewalks and structures were not supported to protect employees; dirt and other materials were less than 2 feet from the edge of the excavation; and there were no daily inspections of the changing soil conditions.

The $25,000 fine Alki Construction was ordered to pay at the March 5 sentencing is on top of the fine issued in 2016 by L&I.

L&I Director Joel Sacks noted that it is rare for an employer to go to jail for a workplace fatality.

“The ultimate responsibility to keep workers out of needlessly dangerous situations lies with the employer,” he said. “Trench safety standards have been in place since the ’70s – there’s no excuse to justify ignoring them or any other workplace safety requirements. Employers must be held accountable when they put their workers lives at risk.”