People like to think that when something bad happens to good people that there is justice at the end of the day. That is not always the case.
“In this disturbing case, justice is missing. It has taken a hike and gone someplace else. And the victim? The victim is the one who will suffer for the greed of others and they inclination to turn a blind eye to human suffering,” said Robert W. Lee, a personal injury attorney of Lee, Gober & Reyna in Austin, Texas.
This story is about a man in his late 40s who was a skilled contract pipefitter who knew what he was doing. He had worked in Texas refineries for over 20 years and earned a good living for his wife and child. Things were going well at work until one day when the man and a coworker were getting the crude unit ready for a chemical wash. They were both up on a scaffold when a nipple, measuring three-quarters of an inch by 17 inches, gave away. In breaking loose from the heat exchanger, it blew oil heated to 550 degrees over both men.
The man’s coworker made it off the scaffold with burns on his head, neck and back. The man himself was stuck in his safety harness and seared on his arms, hands and head. When he was finally cut down, he was taken to the nearest hospital for immediate medical attention.
Over the course of three years, the man needed 11 surgeries to rebuild his chin by taking skin from his thighs and chest. He can no longer close his right eye because of scar tissue, and he cannot regulate his body temperature. His life is virtually over, as he can no longer do what he used to do, including work.
“He is in pain every single day. And those are the physical ramifications of his accident. The financial ramifications are even more insulting and cut deeper than the unbearable pain he lives with constantly,” Lee said.
This man has been lost in the cracks of protections for workers injured on the job. He has over $200,000 in medical bills to deal with and his only income is a very small workers’ compensation check. He is about out of money and has nowhere else to turn, because the law in Texas says he cannot sue his employer at the time of the accident.
“He cannot sue because the company provided workers’ compensation coverage. This scenario is further complicated by a Texas court decision that a Texas property owner is considered to be his or her own ‘general contractor.’ This means they are protected from lawsuits if they provide worker’s compensation to their ‘subcontractors.’ In this case, the main employer at the time of the accident did provide workers’ comp,” Lee said.
The landscape of fairness and equity and justice for all radically changed for workers in 2007, when the Supreme Court decided unanimously that premises owners were shielded from liability. This decision sounds suspiciously close to the reasons why there are medical malpractice damage caps in some states to protect doctors who make medical errors.
“The nine judges who rendered their unanimous decision have received close to $1.2 million in the form of campaign contributions from the oil/gas industry,” Lee said. This information is available to anyone wanting to read more by finding the data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Also consider this: that virtually one-fifth of all refineries in the U.S. are in Texas,” he said.
If the law is not changed, there will be no justice for workers in situations like this man. They will bear the brunt of a ruined life due to a workplace accident they had no control over. They will be financially destitute because no one can sue the property owners. Where is justice for Texas workers?
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