S.D. Supreme Court rules widow should get workers’ comp benefits in Miller trench case

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The wife should receive death benefits after her husband died in a trench collapse, the South Dakota Supreme Court said in a decision publicly released Thursday.

The justices agreed that then-Circuit Court Judge Patricia DeVaney correctly ruled the man didn’t engage in willful misconduct that would have otherwise voided a worker compensation claim.

DeVaney now is a Supreme Court justice and didn’t participate in the high court’s review.

James Bonebright was the superintendent of the Miller water department. He eventually died after the dirt sides of a trench fell on him and another worker July 8, 2016.

The trench sides weren’t sloped and the men didn’t use the city’s trench box.

Bonebright’s widow, Stephanie, sought workers’ compensation benefits from the city of Miller and its provider, the South Dakota Municipal League Workers’ Compensation Fund.

The city hired an investigator who concluded the collapse could have been avoided if proper excavation guidelines were followed such as sloping. The investigator also said the trench box could have been adapted to provide some protection to the men.

That led the city and the fund to deny workers’ compensation benefits to the widow, saying that Bonebright had engaged in willful misconduct.

The widow then petitioned the state Department of Labor and Regulation for medical and funeral expenses along with indemnity benefits as a surviving spouse. The department denied the willful misconduct defense and awarded benefits to her.

“Although it (the department) concluded that Bonebright had engaged in willful misconduct, the department determined that the city had not established that Bonebright’s failure to follow safety precautions was a proximate cause of his injury and death,” Justice Mark Salter wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision.

The city and the fund appealed to the circuit court, challenging the department’s determination that Bonebright’s willful misconduct was not a proximate cause of his death.

Judge DeVaney determined the department clearly erred when it found that Bonebright engaged in willful misconduct because, she said, the city had “habitually disregard[ed] violations of the safety rule.”

The high court upheld her decision.

“The undisputed facts contained in the record demonstrate that the city did not enforce its safety rules for securing trenches either historically or at the time of Bonebright’s death,” Salter wrote.

“Even though several city council members, the mayor, and the electrical department superintendent … were present at the job site at various times on July 8, no one ordered the project stopped or reprimanded Bonebright for his failure to follow trench excavation safety rules.”

Read the decision here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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