The Missoula County attorney is reviewing the death of an auto shop worker in a workplace fire last summer to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

“When you’ve got a death that occurs, and you certainly have relatives of the decedent who think that it’s appropriate to consider criminal charges, that certainly falls within our responsibility,” said County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.

Bruce Hall, 44, died after he was severely burned in an August fire at Rick’s Auto Body in Missoula. He was pouring lacquer from a barrel into a smaller container when the fumes exploded.

A fire marshal’s report classified the fire’s cause as accidental and determined no foul play was involved. If something had indicated criminal activity, such as arson, then police would have conducted an investigation, fire marshal Gordy Hughes said.

The fire department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration work within different sets of regulations, he explained. “There was nothing at the time that had indicated any criminal activity.”

In December, OSHA released the results of its investigation, charging the Missoula shop with nine safety violations and fining the shop’s owners $36,000.

But Bruce Hall’s sister, Laura Hall, is not satisfied and requested Van Valkenburg review the case. She believes owner/managers Rick Booth and Paul Flores were negligent because of their shop’s deficient safety measures.

When the fire marshal’s report was released before OSHA’s investigation, people took away the message that the fire was an unfortunate accident, Laura Hall said.

“It was gross negligence – nine serious OSHA violations,” she contends.

In a letter to Van Valkenburg, Hall requested that he consider filing criminal or negligent endangerment charges to make a point to the owners of Rick’s.

“It’s more about accountability,” she said.

If criminal charges are filed, more business owners might take notice and be more responsive to employee concerns and safety needs, Hall said.

“I want the ripple effect. … And I feel charges will get people’s attention,” she added.

***

Hall said she believes her brother voiced his safety concerns to at least one person at the shop. He had undergone OSHA safety training himself – for his business in metal restoration in Texas – before moving to Missoula about six years ago.

However, nothing was done to address the concerns, and Bruce Hall did not call OSHA’s hotline, instead considering purchasing a static dissipation mat to mitigate some of the danger himself, she said.

Rick Booth, who owns the shop, disagrees and said he has fully abated safety issues identified in the OSHA report and strictly follows a monthly payment plan on the fine.

“I was not aware of any problems back there,” Booth said, adding he never spoke with Bruce Hall about safety concerns.

“We’ve always had a culture of safety here. We’ve always tried to do the right thing,” Booth said.

In the area of the shop where Hall’s brother was burned, paints and other chemicals were not covered or properly stored, equipment wasn’t properly grounded and the ventilation system wasn’t properly working, the OSHA investigation showed.

However, chemicals and paints were properly stored in another area of the shop, which illustrates management knew proper safety procedures, Hall said.

“That just breaks my heart when I look at that,” Hall said, pointing to side-by-side pictures of the two areas.

Digging for information to piece together the fire has helped her deal with her brother’s death – and with her last images of him, with his skin so badly burned it was sloughing off his hands, she said. “I wanted to know the truth.”

She obtained photos, the full OSHA report, and several other reports and documents about her brother’s death with the help of advocate Ron Hayes, who founded Families In Grief Hold Together after his own son died working in a grain bin.

With Hayes’ help and knowledge of how to navigate bureaucracy, Hall has started a crusade to improve awareness and safety for others.

On Saturday, April 26, Hall has organized a Workers Memorial Day event at noon on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn to remember other workers who have been injured or killed on the job.

Each day, 13 people die at work, she said. “That’s too many.”

Her tender-hearted brother was generous to a fault and would have wanted to make sure that something similar did not happen to anyone else, Hall said.

“I don’t want another family to have to go through this. It’s horrible, she ”said.

Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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(9) comments

Richland1
Richland1

Alan: As a Safety Professional with over 36 years and a Professional Certificate by examination in Comprehensive Practice for the last +23 years, my colleagues and I couldn’t agree more with your comment that analysis of the facts should be left to someone who practices in the field of Workman's Comp, personal injury, wrongful death, etc. If you read my comments you would know we aren’t taking the position that every employer who has an accident happen on his premises that injures or kills an employee, should be criminally charged just because of Work-Comp limitations. We stated clearly that based on available information and our experiences with accidents “including” fatalities that this Employer of Record had a Unsafe Workplace. OSHA’s 9 serious citations supports this. Since we have worked with both Plaintiff and Defense Lawyers over the years we are certainly aware of the 50% rule. This lady and/or her attorney should ask the City of Missoula for copies of all work place inspections along with any citations and/or requested corrective actions that have been conducted by the City Fire Marshall in the last 10 years. There should also be a request for all annual inspections of this workplace by the business’s insurance Safety Personnel for the past 10 years. These 2 sources would show what most of us think is “self-evident” in that this ‘”Unsafe Workplace” existed in Missoula for some time. The remaining question(s) are what did the City of Missoula Fire Marshall and/or the Business Insurance Underwriters for this business know, when did they know it and what effort(s) did they make to correct any observed deficiencies? If you’re a lawyer Alan, how about helping stamp out Unsafe Work places in Missoula by making an example of this Employer?
Thanks for your great input Alan!
Gerald E. McPherson, CSP

concerned person

The headline of the article says it all! "Charges will get peoples attention" maybe so. But what attention is Laura Hall attempting to elicit with the staged photo of her sitting on the Courthouse lawn with a pair of her brothers boots in her hands.

Is the staged photo meant to have us think of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" Where Shylock wants his "Pound of Flesh" or are we to think of the Missoula firemen in the middle of Reserve Ave. on Memorial day who want their boots filled with cash? Either scenario is troubling.

Now Ms. Hall is holding a "Memorial" for her brother on the steps of the Missoula county Courthouse. GIVE ME A BREAK!

What more poof does one need to see that this lady is out to get her "pound of flesh" or "boots full of cash!"

Whatever her motives are, she is surly dishonoring her brother's memory!

Alan H Johnson

She's not after a "pound of flesh." A man was killed and we have centuries of jurisprudence in this country and in other countries that make those who negligently caused it liable for damages to those who have standing to seek redress.

Johndoe2318

Thank both of you for your support. Alan H.Johnson, you make very good points. Legislation in Montana however covers worker's comp as a buy-out for the responsibility of the employer in most cases.(lay-mans term for what herald said) This being one of them. Thanks Montana legislation, and those who passed these laws! We really appreciate it!
And as for the workers compensation pay-out.....funeral expenses got covered and maybe a plane ticket or two, if the plane ticket money for the family didn't come out of someone else's pocket in the family.
Not to mention his kid starting college a week after his father's death. I'm pretty sure if his father had been living that his father would be supporting him through college, maybe even helping his son buy a house. Now what? That family suffers such a great loss, then gets told, sorry, nothing you can do about it. This makes me sick.
I think the family is more of making a point out of this business and it's owner to show the rest of employers that they need to step up safety protocols set forth. If the owner of the shop doesn't know of a problem, he shouldn't be running a shop.

John F. Doe

Richland1
Richland1

Alan H. Johnson, if you review the information in this case, the family received very limited funds from Montana Workman Compensation and it’s very hard to sue in Montana unless you can show “willful” negligence or some similar disclaimer.
With all due respect to the City of Missoula Fire Department, this wasn’t an accident. AND we all know it wasn’t arson but most Safety Professionals will be wondering why OSHA didn’t pursue criminal charges on the case.
This employer clearly was an “Unsafe” employer per OSHA. 9 SERIOUS violations document this.
If you review the OSHA citations for which there is a link on this page and follow that up by reading the OSHA investigation final report it shows this employer of record didn’t meet OSHA’s requirements to provide a SAFE Workplace. I hope everyone knows that OSHA requirements for Worker Safety can be stated in the General Duty Clause shown below:
Section 5. Duties
(a) Each employer –
(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;
(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.

Translation for all Non-Safety Professionals is—
The Employer shall “identify” workplace hazards and “mitigate them.
The Employer should avail himself of all Safety and Health Training OSHA provides.
The employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to the work environment to control and/or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness and injury.
Bottom line, nothing is going to bring Bruce Hall back or fix his sister’s broken heart. But, the owner of this shop should be held responsible beyond OSHA fines. We’ll leave that to all the hot shot lawyers in Missoula to adjudicate.
We wonder how often the Fire Marshall for the City of Missoula, inspects the city’s fixed place Industrial and manufacturing facilities for compliance will all applicable Fire Safety Codes. The same goes for OSHA’s Billing’s office—how often do they inspect these Missoula establishments or do they only do it when there is an employee complaint? The City Fire Marshall should do his inspections on a regular schedule, for a city like Missoula that would be about once a year.
Our Best to Ms. Hall and her family.
Gerald E. McPherson, CSP

Alan H Johnson

And perhaps the facts do merit willful negligence. Those are some serious findings by OSHA. But I'll leave that analysis to someone who practices in the field of Workman's Comp, personal injury, wrongful death, etc. Certainly you aren't taking the position that every employer who has an accident happen on his premises that injures or kills an employee, should be criminally charged just because of Work-Comp limitations, or are you?

Speaking as one who practices in criminal cases, torts do not belong in the criminal side. We start down a very slippery slope when we begin criminalizing torts. That said I am sympathetic to the argument that the work-comp reforms passed back in the 90s by a GOP legislature and governor were extremely unfair to workers.

Alan H Johnson

Before getting too far (and making things more confusing) I should say that many crimes are also torts. But most torts are not crimes and shouldn't be.

Richland1
Richland1

Alan H. Johnson, if you review the information in this case, the family received very limited funds from Montana Workman Compensation and it’s very hard to sue in Montana unless you can show “willful” negligence or some similar disclaimer.
With all due respect to the City of Missoula Fire Department, this wasn’t an accident. AND we all know it wasn’t arson but most Safety Professionals will be wondering why OSHA didn’t pursue criminal charges on the case.
This employer clearly was an “Unsafe” employer per OSHA. 9 SERIOUS violations document this.
If you review the OSHA citations for which there is a link on this page and follow that up by reading the OSHA investigation final report it shows this employer of record didn’t meet OSHA’s requirements to provide a SAFE Workplace. I hope everyone knows that OSHA requirements for Worker Safety can be stated in the General Duty Clause shown below:
Section 5. Duties
(a) Each employer –
(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;
(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.

Translation for all Non-Safety Professionals is—
The Employer shall “identify” workplace hazards and “mitigate them.
The Employer should avail himself of all Safety and Health Training OSHA provides.
The employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to the work environment to control and/or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness and injury.
Bottom line, nothing is going to bring Bruce Hall back or fix his sister’s broken heart. But, the owner of this shop should be held responsible beyond OSHA fines. We’ll leave that to all the hot shot lawyers in Missoula to adjudicate.
We wonder how often the Fire Marshall for the City of Missoula, inspects the city’s fixed place Industrial and manufacturing facilities for compliance will all applicable Fire Safety Codes. The same goes for OSHA’s Billing’s office—how often do they inspect these Missoula establishments or do they only do it when there is an employee complaint? The City Fire Marshall should do his inspections on a regular schedule, for a city like Missoula that would be about once a year.
Our Best to Ms. Hall and her family.
Gerald E. McPherson, CSP

Alan H Johnson

My take on this is that we shouldn't go down the path of criminalizing all torts. There are remedies available for negligence in civil law. The family can and should sue Rick's Autobody. They are clearly civilly liable. The OSHA finding and citations would prove negligence per se and the argument would only be for damages. The burden of proof in such a case would just be preponderance of the evidence, meaning, roughly, that a jury can hold for negligence if the plaintiff has proved the case just over 50 percent. A criminal case would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

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