SYLACAUGA, Ala. (WIAT) — A Talladega County mother is pushing to change Alabama workers’ compensation laws after her son’s death that stemmed from an accident on the job in September 2019.
20-year-old Mason Spurlin lost consciousness, asphyxiated, and died from oxygen deprivation, according to records from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
Spurlin had been washing out a tanker at J & M Tank Lines in Sylacauga where he was employed.
Online OSHA records show that five serious violations related to permit-required confined spaces were found after an inspection.
“To be able to get justice, yeah the law needs to be changed,” said Connie Hay, Spurlin’s mother.
Hay still struggles with the pain of losing her son, who aspired to be a diesel mechanic.
“He was very loved. Very outgoing. He had a big heart,” said Hay.
After the incident in 2019, Hay rushed to be with her son at Coosa Valley Medical Center. He was later taken to UAB where he died.
“The doctors just kept telling me, ‘we don’t know where to begin. We don’t know. He has inhaled something toxic that has completely scorched his lungs,'” Hay recalled.
Despite the OSHA violations, Hay’s attorney Kendall Dunson said the employer has immunity under Alabama’s Workers Compensation Law.
“If we filed that lawsuit, it would be dismissed immediately because Alabama law does not allow you to sue your employer for anything other than what is available under comp statute, and what is available to her is only $7,500,” said Dunson.
A portion of the statute reads:
If the deceased employee at the time of his or her death has no dependents as herein defined, then within 60 days of his or her death, the employer shall pay a one-time lump sum payment of seven thousand five hundred dollars ($7,500) to the deceased worker’s estate.
Since Mason Spurlin did not have a wife, children, or any dependents, his family is only eligible to receive $7,500. The amount was set by the state several years ago and has not changed with inflation.
“I feel like the state is saying 7,500 is what his life was worth,” said Spurlin.
The family knows no amount of money will bring back their son, but they feel powerless to laws they now want to change.
“I am not saying if you break your arm, you can sue them, but if it is a federal OSHA regulation you should be able to be held liable for it,” said Hay.
Proponents of the Workers’ Compensation Law said it does offer some protections for employers and employees.
In Spurlin’s case, his family wants to see an increase in benefits or the ability to hold an employer responsible.
“If you don’t want to change the framework of allowing a private action against an employer, well then increase the benefits,” said Dunson.
Dunson noted that other states have different laws and some allow exceptions.
“Alabama has some exceptions, but not against the employer. You may be able to sue a co-employee under limited circumstances,” said Dunson.
Connie Hay has reached out to area lawmakers to start discussions about changing the compensation law.
“I’d tell him I love him and I am not going to give up for him. I am not going to give up. I am going to fight until the very end,” said Hay.
J & M Tank Lines released the following statement:
The J&M family’s thoughts and prayers have and continue to be with the Spurlin and Hay families during this difficult time. J&M Tank Lines operates with the core belief, the Safety of our team members and the motoring public is placed above all else.
Online OSHA records state that J &M has a penalty payment plan in place for around $50,000 in fines. The original amount of fines was around $67,000. Dunson noted that fines can be reduced if some safety changes are made.
Connie Hay has started a petition to change the compensation laws. You can read more here.