The Petersburg-based timber company pushing a bill that would limit corporate payouts to workers knowingly exposed to unsafe conditions has a history of documented safety violations.
Since 2014, Allegheny Wood Products has been cited by federal inspectors for over a dozen safety violations and fined more than $60,000, according to records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The company is one of the most outspoken proponents of a bill working its way through the West Virginia Legislature that would limit corporate payouts in lawsuits brought by injured employees through a part of the state’s workers compensation laws known as “deliberate intent.”
Employees entitled to workers compensation are barred from suing their employer if they are injured on the job. However, deliberate intent allows injured workers to sue their employer if they were knowingly exposed to unsafe conditions. It also allows the families of workers killed on the job to sue under the same circumstances. House Bill 3270 would limit noneconomic damages such as pain, suffering or loss of enjoyment of life from any such lawsuits to $500,000.
At a public hearing on the bill last month, Allegheny Wood Products President John Crites II said deliberate intent laws make it difficult for companies in West Virginia to compete with those in states that don’t have similar statutes.
“My father started our company 50 years ago this year, and he was always offended by companies that would stay just across the West Virginia line,” Crites said at the hearing. He said companies avoid West Virginia because of the high price of insurance required to cover deliberate intent lawsuits.
Crites did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his company’s history of violations and Phyllis Cole, the company’s lobbyist, declined to comment.
Last week, the bill passed the House of Delegates 52-45 and goes to the Senate. Thirty-three Republicans joined every Democrat in opposing the bill.
“I don’t usually get up and talk much,” said Del. David Adkins, R-Lincoln, the only Republican who spoke against the bill on the floor. “I think I was voted in not to come up here and put a cap on somebody’s life.”
The bill’s lead sponsor, Del. John Hott, R-Grant, pointed out that the bill did not impact workers compensation payments — only lawsuits by employees seeking additional compensation.
“The bill before you was not my original desire, but I believe it to be a step in the right direction,” Hott said on the floor. He declined to answer emailed follow-up questions about Allegheny Wood’s workplace safety violations.
Last year, Hott sponsored a bill supported by Allegheny Wood that would have eliminated deliberate intent laws altogether. It died in committee.
Since March 2014, Allegheny Wood facilities in West Virginia have been cited for eight “serious” violations and six “other than serious” violations by OSHA. A “serious” violation is defined as one that would most likely result in death or serious harm and “other than serious” violations have a lower risk to employees. As a result, the company has been fined more than $60,000.
In 2019, two accidents resulted in employee amputations. In one incident that February, an employee installing a rubber chute guard on a conveyor belt got stuck in the tail roller, and their leg was amputated above the knee. An investigation six days later found a serious safety violation that resulted in a $13,260 fine. That July, an employee had the tip of their index finger amputated after it was crushed between two carts.
These violations found by OSHA wouldn’t necessarily result in a successful deliberate intent claim if a worker was injured. Deliberate intent requires an injured worker to prove that their employer didn’t just know about the unsafe conditions, but intentionally exposed them.
Data from Workforce West Virginia shows wood product manufacturing consistently has some of the highest rates of non-fatal injuries in the state.
Last year, Allegheny Wood hired former state Supreme Court Justice Evan Jenkins to represent them to lawmakers only weeks after he had announced his resignation from the bench — in spite of state law that would bar him from lobbying. At that point, the company was pushing for a separate bill that would have eliminated employees’ ability to mount deliberate intent lawsuits altogether. That bill failed.
The current bill is something of a compromise between industry and labor — allowing deliberate intent lawsuits while limiting the size of payouts.
At the same public hearing where Crites and other timber industry representatives defended the bill, injured workers who rely on money awarded in deliberate intent lawsuits spoke out against it.
Robert Hyde said he was injured at his workplace nine years ago and had to have his leg amputated above the knee. His wife still has difficulty discussing the injury, and he worries whether he’ll be able to play sports or keep up with his two-year-old daughter when she grows up.
“Every morning I have to put my prosthetic on. Every night I have to take it off,” Hyde said. “It’s a constant reminder of what happened to me.”
The resulting deliberate intent case didn’t just help Hyde get his life on track, he said. But it served as a check on his employer that, he said, violated industry-standard safety protocols.
“Putting a cap on the amount of money that will have a direct impact on making injured people’s lives a little easier is only going to benefit employers’ profits and not provide any accountability for a dangerous workplace,” he said.