Holding Employers Accountable: Workplace Deaths and Legal Responsibility in Pennsylvania


Workplace injuries and fatalities in Pennsylvania, while less common than in decades past, remain an important issue. When a loved one dies due to unsafe working conditions or negligence from an employer, it often leaves families wondering what recourse they have and whether employers can or should be held legally accountable. A Pittsburgh personal injury lawyer may be able to help your family receive fair compensation for the loss your loved ones suffered. This article examines employers’ responsibilities, liability, and obligations under Pennsylvania law when employee deaths occur on the job.

The Legal Duty of Care for Workplace Safety

Under Pennsylvania law, employers have a legal duty of care to provide a reasonably safe working environment, free from known hazards that could foreseeably cause serious injuries or death. This duty of care manifests through multiple required safety measures:

  • Properly training employees for all equipment usage and safety procedures relevant to their specific roles
  • Providing appropriate safety equipment (hard hats, harnesses, guards, etc.) for hazard exposure risks across different jobs, including enforcement and monitoring of consistent safety gear usage
  • Ensuring dangerous industrial equipment and machinery with pinch points, crushing hazards, electrical risks and other dangers are properly safeguarded to prevent access to moving parts or energy sources
  • Following both explicit industry safety standards outlined by regulation as well as implicit safety best practices recommended across similar businesses and work activities
  • Promptly correcting any reported safety hazards like damaged equipment, nonfunctional alarms or guarding, chemical leaks, etc. before they lead to harm

In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues legally binding workplace health and safety standards that carry fines and penalties for non-compliance. But even with regulatory oversight, primary responsibility for preventing unnecessary workplace hazards lies with Pennsylvania business owners and management. Employers who fail to address known safety concerns directly or via OSHA citations can be found negligent of their duty of care obligations if the lapse results in employee injury or death.

Proving Employer Liability in Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Seeking civil monetary damages through Pennsylvania courts is one route to holding employers accountable following a workplace fatality. To successfully prove employer liability in a wrongful death lawsuit related to occupational hazards, the deceased worker’s estate must establish four key legal elements:

  • The employer had a direct duty of care to the deceased employee regarding workplace safety
  • The employer breached this legal duty through negligence in their safety protections, protocols, or procedures
  • This negligent breach was the direct and proximate cause linked to the employee’s death
  • As a result of the wrongful death, quantifiable monetary losses and hardship now burden the surviving family, whether via lost future income, benefits, or pain and suffering damages

If compelling evidence in the form of internal documents, inspection records, equipment logs, witness testimony, expert analysis, and other means establishes all four liability criteria in relation to the fatality, the court can determine the employer bears significant civil liability. Wrongful death settlements via negotiation or jury awards at trial frequently reach millions of dollars depending on factors like lost future earnings potential.

Common Employer Defenses Against Liability

When defending against substantial wrongful death liability and negligence claims following a workplace fatality, Pennsylvania employers and their insurance representatives frequently raise arguments centered around three legal defenses:

Employee Misconduct – The employer attempts to argue that the deceased employee demonstrated reckless misconduct such as intentionally disabling safety equipment or violating explicitly stated safety protocols, and this behavior alone triggered the accident leading to their death. However, this claim is often weakened if the employer cannot definitively show adequate safety rules and training were in place and consistently enforced in the first place. Also, not all employee misconduct voids liability. If the employer failed to properly hire, train, or supervise workers around known equipment dangers, they may retain some fault regardless.

Assumption of Risk – Similar to misconduct claims, employers argue the employee was fully aware of and voluntarily assumed inherent job-related dangers and their accompanying risks. However, assumptions of risk have limits in workplace injury litigation. Workers cannot waive legal protections for exceptionally hazardous activities they have no direct control over and derive no specific benefit from beyond ordinary employment. Also, employers may still maintain liability if they intentionally violate regulations related to these known and accepted risks.

Comparative Negligence – Since Pennsylvania adheres to modified comparative negligence doctrines, employers and their insurance representatives often try assigning partial blame onto employees alongside employer negligence admissions when defending wrongful death suits. The goal is keeping damages below certain thresholds by arguing the employee failed their own duty to act reasonably against recognizable risks. However, comparative negligence arguments falter if the employer demonstrably failed to address dire safety issues fully under their direct control which then clearly led to the workplace fatality.

Overcoming Power Imbalances to Improve Accountability

Some critics argue that consistently holding employers fully accountable for preventable workplace deaths is complicated by real and perceived power imbalances within the worker-employer relationship. Fear of employment termination or workplace retaliation may prevent some living employees from openly reporting recognized hazards to supervisors in the first place. Those same fears could dissuade coworkers from cooperating with injury investigations or offering honest testimony should a wrongful death lawsuit later develop. Regulatory agencies like OSHA also face resource and administrative constraints only allowing occasional inspections, while penalties against large corporations amount to minor costs unlikely to spur major change alone.

Increasing protection for whistleblowers, expanding rights to unpaid leave for participating in safety inquiries following incidents, preventing blacklisting of employees labeled as problematic for merely speaking up, and instituting larger fines tied to company revenue could help overcome these barriers. More robust governmental safety standards with expanded workplace inspection resources and mandatory corporate compliance transparency around past violations may further bolster accountability as well. With reduced susceptibility to intimidation or inaction, the full details surrounding workplace tragedies can then rise to the surface.

Seeking Justice and Accountability

Coping with the sudden traumatic loss of a loved one due to preventable employer negligence and workplace hazards leaves many families emotionally and financially devastated. And even if regulatory fines or workers’ compensation aid offer partial help following deaths, the reality remains no financial award can restore what was truly lost. But there are still meaningful legal avenues left for Pennsylvania families to pursue fuller accountability even in the aftermath of tremendous workplace tragedy.

If you lost a family member in a Pennsylvania workplace accident and have questions around employer liability, workers compensation benefits, or options for further civil recourse, an experienced personal injury attorney can provide guidance. With offices in 32 locations across 19 states including Pennsylvania, Iowa and Utah, we can help. Call us today for a free consultation on (888) 477-0597.

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