Boston drain service owner guilty of manslaughter in trench-collapse deaths

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Updated Nov 5, 2019
Excavator bucket digging trench stock
In 2017, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, right, announced manslaughter charges in the 2016 deaths of two men in a trench collapse in Boston. With Conley are Assistant D.A. Michael V. Glennon, left, who responded to the scene, and Assistant D.A. Lynn Feigenbaum of the Senior Trial Unit, who led the grand jury investigation that culminated in criminal charges against Atlantic Drain Service and its owner, Kevin Otto.In 2017, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, right, announced manslaughter charges in the 2016 deaths of two men in a trench collapse in Boston. With Conley are Assistant D.A. Michael V. Glennon, left, who responded to the scene, and Assistant D.A. Lynn Feigenbaum of the Senior Trial Unit, who led the grand jury investigation that culminated in criminal charges against Atlantic Drain Service and its owner, Kevin Otto.

The owner of a Boston drain service company has been found guilty of manslaughter in the death of two of his workers during a 2016 trench collapse in the city.

On October 31, Suffolk Superior Court judge determined after an eight-day bench trial that Kevin Otto and his company, Atlantic Drain Service, were guilty in the deaths of Robert Higgins, 47, and Kelvin Mattocks, 53. They were also found guilty of witness intimidation. Sentencing will be December 4.

The men were working in an unprotected, 12-foot-deep trench when dirt caved in, covering them to the waist, then the water main at a fire hydrant burst, according to the Suffolk County Prosecutor’s Office.

“The trench was flooded in seconds, and neither Higgins nor Mattocks was able to escape,” the prosecutor’s office said. “Both died at the scene, and it would be almost six hours before their bodies were recovered.”

Atlantic Drain also faces about $1.5 million in fines from the U.S. Occupation Safety and Health Administration from the incident. Otto is contesting the proposed penalties.

Otto’s defense, which pleaded not guilty, argued that the incident was caused by a hydrant pipe failure that allowed water to rush into the trench, not inadequate cave-in protection.

OSHA issued 23 violations against Atlantic Drain on May 1, 2017, including repeat violations for inadequate cave-in protection for workers. In February 2017, the Suffolk County Prosecutor’s Office announced the manslaughter charges.

Charging a contractor with a crime in a trench collapse is not typical, but in the past five years, prosecutors have been more willing to press charges in trench collapse cases because they are preventable if proper protective measures are put in place. Other criminal cases in trench collapses have occurred in Santa Clara County, California (2015), New York City (2016), Ventura County, California (2017), Seattle (2018), two cases in Pennsylvania (2018), and Morris County, New Jersey (2018). Most recently, a Colorado contractor was charged with manslaughter in August in the death of a worker in a trench collapse in 2018.

For more on the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities in the United States, see Equipment World’s special report “Death by Trench”.