Updated on: 2/5/2019
A King County Superior Court Jury recently awarded an Everett man $2.6 million for a number of serious injuries he suffered after a construction accident back in 2002. But there is a lot more to this case than meets the eye, and it goes beyond just the verdict itself.
You see, Alex Salas’s personal injury lawsuit was nearly met with a devastating fate. After an extensive jury trial in 2006 jurors determined that Hi-tech Erectors, a third-party contractor, was indeed negligent when it installed unsafe ladders and scaffolding for Salas and his coworkers. But despite ruling that the contractor was negligent, the jury declined to award Salas any damages for his life-changing injuries, which included a fractured pelvis, broken leg, broken wrist, and a traumatic brain injury.
The general consensus among experts was that the defense had focused on painting a negative picture of Salas as a plaintiff. Although Salas had lived in the Seattle area for 25 years and had a great deal of experience as a carpenter, he was an undocumented immigrant. And the defense attorneys reportedly made several references to him as an “illegal alien,” an inflammatory term that likely influenced jurors’ to deny him the compensation he deserved.
Plaintiff Finds Justice after Appeal
Salas appealed the decision to the Washington State Supreme Court, arguing that his immigration status had no bearing on the injuries he suffered or whether or not he was entitled to the same legal protections as legal citizens. Hi-tech was responsible for his injuries, Salas claimed, and could have prevented the accident by following industry safety standards.
The Supreme Court ruled that the issue of Salas’s immigration status had the potential to create prejudice amongst the jury and that it should not be entered into a civil trial on an unrelated matter. Furthermore, the court ruled that Salas should be granted a retrial.
The new trial commenced on June 29 of this year, and after approximately one week the jury found Hi-tech was negligent and awarded Salas $2.59 million in damages.
Impact on Injury Claims for Undocumented Workers
Hi-tech was hired by Salas’s employer, Charter Construction, to erect scaffolding at a condominium construction project site in the Northgate area in 2002. According to court documents, the ladders that Hi-tech installed as part of the scaffolding fell short of safety standards. Salas argued that the injuries he suffered in the construction accident were a result of the unsafe equipment.
In Washington state, workers are prohibited from suing their employers for personal injuries suffered while on the job. But if a third-party contractor hired by the worker’s employer is responsible for the worker’s injuries or other damages - as Hi-tech was in this particular case - then the law permits the injured worker to pursue a lawsuit.
What made this case complicated was the fact that Salas was an undocumented immigrant, and that defense counsel attempted to use that to influence the jury’s opinion of whether or not Salas was entitled to the standard protections granted to workers under Washington state law. The state Supreme Court confirmed that even undocumented workers are entitled to the same protections under state law.
This case is significant for any other undocumented immigrant workers who may become injured due to the negligence of a third-party contractor. Some undocumented workers may not feel comfortable pursuing a lawsuit for personal injury due to their immigration status. But this case provides clarification that undocumented workers are entitled to the same protections of the law as anyone else.