Between December 10th and 11th, 2021, dozens of tornados swept through Kentucky and other surrounding states. The damage to communities was severe – according to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, “this event is the worst, most devastating, most deadly tornado event in Kentucky’s history.”
Responders have confirmed the deaths of at least 80 people, but Gov. Beshear said he expects that number to rise to over 100 before crews finish searching. President Biden approved Kentucky’s request to declare a state of emergency and plans to visit the state personally in the upcoming days.
In the aftermath, witnesses and observers have started questioning whether businesses took appropriate measures to protect employees. At least eight employees at a Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory were declared dead after tornados leveled the facility. At an Amazon delivery station in Edwardsville, Illinois, six workers died under similar circumstances.
Could these businesses be held liable in wrongful death or personal injury disputes resulting from this disaster? That’s what we’re exploring today.
What Happened At the Mayfield Candle Factory?
In the days after the disaster, witness accounts from workers at the Mayfield candle factory have painted a disturbing picture.
Workers report that around 15 employees asked to go home early when tornado warning sirens began blaring. At least five workers reported that supervisors warned employees they could be fired for leaving before the end of their shifts.
McKayla Emery, an employee at the candle factory, said she overhead supervisors saying, “if you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired.” Elijah Johnson, another employee, said, “I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired.” Johnson then reportedly asked, “even with the weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?” And a supervisor allegedly responded, “yes.”
Hayley Conder, Mark Saxton, and Latavia Halliburton – all workers at the factory – gave similar accounts. Each stated they were either told they could be fired for leaving or were simply asked to work through the warnings.
When the tornado struck, it leveled the facility. At least eight workers died. Several survivors suffered blunt force trauma or wounds due to materials kept onsite for candle manufacturing.
Company officials at Mayfield Consumer Products denied the employee reports, stating that supervisors followed protocol and that employees could leave at any time.
Tornado Aftermath at the Edwardsville Amazon Warehouse
What we know about the occurrences at the Amazon station in Edwardsville, Illinois, sounds similar to reports from Mayfield.
Amazon officials claim that supervisors immediately told employees to seek shelter. However, Rachel Cope – the sister of Clayton Cope, an employee killed at the station – believes otherwise. Rachel told BBC News that “no-one would have been frantically getting to the shelter last minute and my brother wouldn’t have had to help people get to the shelter and put his life at risk” if procedures were followed.
The disaster also attracted the attention of the Retail Workers State Department Union (RWDSU), which is currently leading unionization efforts at an Amazon station in Bessemer, Alabama. In a statement on the RWDSU website, President Steve Applebaum wrote, “Time and again Amazon puts its bottom line above the lives of its employees. Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning even as this was inexcusable.”
Amazon officials denied the claims.
Are Amazon & Mayfield Consumer Products Liable for Employee Deaths & Injuries?
Possibly- if plaintiffs can prove that employer negligence played a causal role in employee deaths and injuries.
The law mandates that employers provide employees with a safe workplace. However, Rebecca Givan – a professor at Rutgers University – says penalties for violating these laws are weak. As a result, many companies knowingly violate safety laws, believing the profits they gain by doing so are worth legal penalties and fines.
Where natural disasters are involved, laws get murky. If an employee is injured or killed, they (or their family) can seek compensation by filing a worker’s compensation claim. However, in Kentucky, employers are only liable for injuries or deaths related to natural disasters if the employee’s job places them at greater risk than members of the public. In other words, if an employee is just as likely to be injured by a disaster at home as at their job, they may not be eligible for worker’s comp.
The key question here is one of negligence. If employees and their families prove that employers negligently violated safety laws, and said negligence directly contributed to worker deaths or injuries, they could be held liable.
However, if the employees cannot prove that employer negligence caused workers harm or death, such efforts may be less successful.
Employees involved in these disasters and their families aren’t the only ones looking to take legal action. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened a probe into the collapse of the Amazon station in Edwardsville. It will be interesting to see whether Amazon and Mayfield Consumer Products suffer from legal penalties in the coming months.
When Corporations Mistreat Employees, We Take Action – So Should You
If your employer violates safety conditions and requirements in the workplace, speak with a personal injury or employment lawyer. They can help you understand what violations took place, gather evidence, and pursue the best outcome in your case.
At Wilshire Law Firm, PLC, we fight back against corporations and insurance companies that take advantage of employees. Contact us online or via phone at (800) 501-3011 to schedule a consultation with our team!