Lawsuit illustrates gas industry's dangers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The widow of a 26-year-old Nutter Fort man says two Colorado companies are responsible for the truck crash that killed her husband because they forced an exhausted work crew to drive from Ohio to West Virginia, creating a 22-hour work day.
Crystal Roth's husband, Timothy, died around 2 a.m. July 30, 2011, when the truck's driver fell asleep at the wheel. Roth was a passenger in the truck with the crew that had been traveling nearly 200 miles, from a job in Carrollton, Ohio, back to the company shop in Anmoore, after starting work at 4 a.m. the previous day.
The Roth case was featured Monday in a New York Times story that examined what experts say are the increasing dangers for natural gas industry workers in the rush to drill in the Marcellus Shale in areas like Northern West Virginia.
The Times reported that, over the last decade, more than 300 oil and gas workers like Timothy Roth were killed in highway crashes, the largest cause of fatalities in the industry. Many of these deaths could be blamed at least in part on oil and gas exemptions from highway safety rules that allow truckers to work longer hours than drivers in other industries, according to the Times report.
The Times said oil and gas industry fatality rates are seven times the national average for all U.S. industries. Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil and gas workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes, according to an analysis of federal data researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly one-fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.
In the Roth case, Crystal Roth is suing Grand Junction-based Energy Services LLC and its president and chief executive, Keri Gray, along with a shell company that Gray allegedly formed when Energy Services lost its federal Department of Transportation registration numbers for repeated safety violations.
The DOT declared Energy Services' safety rating unsatisfactory in July 2010, the lawsuit says, and permanently revoked its commercial registration in November 2010.
The lawsuit, set for trial in January in Harrison Circuit Court, claims that Gray then created Energy Specialties solely to circumvent federal regulations and to allow Energy Services vehicles to continue operating. The company provides containment and other support services for natural gas drillers.
In court filings, Gray, her two companies and manager Jestus "Shorty'' Wade deny any wrongdoing.
But Roth's attorney, Dino Colombo, says Gray had Energy Services lease its trucks to Energy Specialties, swapping out logos on vehicles carrying equipment, materials and employees. The new company had no clients, assets, bank accounts or liability insurance, he said Thursday.
The lawsuit also names driver Michael Lowther, who was injured in the crash. He's filed his own claims against his employers, arguing they knew he was too tired to drive but forced him to go without rest.
Roth had been married only 2 1/2 months before the crash, Colombo said. He'd started work with Energy Services for $12 an hour in March 2011, eager to improve on his minimum-wage pay at a Clarksburg bakery.
"This new job with Energy Services was important to him,'' Colombo said.
Good-paying jobs are becoming plentiful in Northern West Virginia, even for unskilled workers, as natural gas companies tap into the vast reserves of the Marcellus and Utica shale fields underlying parts of Appalachia.
Roth's wrongful death lawsuit was filed last year but was recently amended to name Gray individually and hold her personally liable.
It says that when the crew finished work around 10 p.m. July 29, the workers knew they'd be expected to be back at Anmoore the following morning. Wade, who oversaw the crew, did not tell them to stop somewhere and rest before heading home when they phoned to tell him they were finished.
Wade knew or should have known the crew would be working a 22-hour day with no rest, the lawsuit says, and that there were no sleeper berths in the truck or on-site resting facilities in Carrollton.
Nor did Wade arrange for a hotel room or instruct the workers to stay overnight.
The defendants also knew that federal regulations require commercial drivers to get a certain amount of rest, the lawsuit says, yet "knowingly made a decision to work these men well beyond a lawful and safe amount of time.''
The lawsuit also claims that company records related to the accident were falsified to avoid federal scrutiny.
It calls the companies' conduct "willful, wanton, reckless and so grossly negligent'' that the judge should award not only compensatory damages, but also punitive damages to deter future bad behavior.