3 On Your Side Investigates: Justice Limited
VICKSBURG, MS (WLBT) - A two-year search for justice in 22-year-old Michael Collins' drowning death will come to a close in the coming weeks, even though it's an outcome that worries his father because of so many others who work up and down the Mississippi River.
"My son left his house at 4:30 to go to work happy-go-lucky and 20 days later, my child came home in a black box. You know, pile of ashes. This is what your child comes home in, and I couldn't even give my child a hug or a kiss goodbye," said Stan Collins.
Stan said the last two years of his life have been a nightmare, starting with that fateful August night.
His son Michael worked for Riverside Construction Company in Vicksburg.
On August 23, 2016, Michael backed an off-road construction vehicle toward a barge to load limestone, but an apparent brake malfunction caused his vehicle to lunge toward the murky water.
"Michael's body never surfaced. Apparently when he did surface, his little body got stuck underneath the barge and when you're in black water, you go from daylight to just total black, so you're disoriented. You don't know which direction you're going. You have no idea what you're doing, and that's where my son died," Stan said.
Less than twenty four hours after the incident, divers located the construction vehicle but still couldn't find Michael.
For 11 days, Stan and dozens of volunteers -- including members of the Warren County Sheriff's Department and Louisiana wildlife officials -- searched the Mississippi River constantly.
For most people, searching that long would have made them have to reconcile with the possibility that their loved one wouldn't be found alive.
"I never did," Stan said. "I still thought I might see him alive. You hear of these tragic accidents and events, cave-ins and that kind of stuff where two weeks later they found people still alive. I had hopes and I just thought, I just knew that we would find my son alive because I knew he was a strong swimmer. If he went in that water, I knew that he could swim really good."
A crew from Riverside Construction used a crane to break up some driftwood at the Baxter Wilson power plant, about a thousand yards downriver from where Michael fell into the water, and that's when they located him.
Today, Stan still keeps memories of his son in their living room: photos, artwork, even the very clothes Michael wore the night he died.
"I can't even imagine what my son went through. I don't know what his last thoughts were. I knew that he knew he was in trouble. And he shouldn't ever been in that position to begin with," Stan said.
Once investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration starting poring through Riverside's records and examined the construction vehicle, they determined the company committed two serious violations.
First, OSHA said the braking systems on Michael's vehicle were not operable or in a "safe condition."
A report obtained by 3 On Your Side said parts of the braking system were actually missing from the truck.
Second, OSHA determined that Riverside Construction had no barrier on the ramp that leads to the barge, which could prevent a vehicle from running off the edge.
Riverside's attorney, Fred Feeney, told 3 On Your Side that violation in particular had nothing to do with the incident, because Michael's vehicle never even touched the ramp.
Still, the agency fined Riverside nearly $20,000, but the company managed to get that reduced to $15,000 after contesting it.
A Vicksburg police investigative report obtained by 3 On Your Side also backs up one of OSHA's conclusions: at least part of the vehicle's braking system didn't work.
"It's negligent homicide in my opinion. You knew this vehicle was defunct but you allowed this vehicle to continue use," Stan said.
A federal lawsuit Stan filed months after the incident echoed those statements.
"Michael Collins and others had made complaints to Riverside before August 23, 2016 about mechanical problems of the dump truck, but Riverside failed to repair and maintain the brakes in safe working order," the complaint states.
Michael also posted something about it on Facebook thirteen months before his death.
"If y'all see a big off-road dump truck coming down the road, please get out the way. I don't have good brakes," the post said.
"I feel like the owner and the mechanic should be in jail for it, but you can't legally go after them. I did that," Stan said.
Originally, Stan filed his lawsuit in Louisiana because he thought it would be easier to find Riverside at fault there and thought the state's knowledge of admiralty law would be an advantage.
Louisiana's legal system, which derives from Spanish and French law, differs greatly from Mississippi law and judges in the state tend to rule based on their own interpretation of the law instead of legal precedent.
Months later, however, the case got transferred to Mississippi.
Because Riverside Construction offered benefits through the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, neither the company nor the owners could be held responsible for Michael's death.
Under section 905(B), a negligence lawsuit can only be filed against the vessel's owner in certain conditions.
Riverside's lawyers responded to Stan's complaint by saying the negligence was caused by third parties, not Riverside.
"The workers' compensation laws of our state and nation are no fault laws, meaning that the employee or his dependents do not need to prove fault against the employer to prevail. The purpose of workers' compensation laws is to remove the common law tort requirements in exchange for a measure of fixed economic relief for accidental industrial injuries without reference to negligence or fault as to the cause of the injury," Feeney said in a statement to WLBT.
Stan's lawyers tried to show that Michael was a seaman under the Jones Act, which would open up the possibility of greater damages -- pain and suffering, lost wages, the net value of a decedent's life in a wrongful death case -- than what's provided under the Longshore Act.
It could also mean the company itself would be found at fault for what happened.
To be considered a seaman, Stan said at least 30 percent of Michael's work would have to consist of work on board that barge, which would include ship-to-shore activities.
"Despite the allegations of the lawsuit filed by Mr. Stan Collins, the undisputed facts show that his son Michael Collins was employed as a truck driver at the time of this accident. Accordingly, his death and the benefits available were governed by the Workers' Compensation laws applicable to any employee," Feeney said in the statement. "As an unmarried young man with no dependents the law is very clear as to what benefits are available."
Before a judge could consider the Jones Act strategy, both sides reached a resolution in the case, with specifics still being decided.
Feeney said the resolution was agreed upon by all parties and again said employers are generally immune from suit in common law.
"Riverside Construction Company intends to comply with all provisions of the resolution jointly agreed to by the parties and will also take all necessary steps to enforce those provisions to bring this litigation to an end," Feeney said.
Now Stan said he's worried about others who still work just a few feet from that unforgiving river.
"They're not safe at all. None. I can tell you right now they're not. I know firsthand they're not. I've seen it," Stan said.
3 On Your Side saw evidence of lax safety procedures, too.
In one instance, an employee could be seen walking on top of a barge with no life jacket.
Behind him, a ramp and off-road vehicle is visible, which was similar to what Michael had been driving that day.
A few orange drums offer little protection from vehicles that might miss that ramp that leads to the barge.
Who owns that property?
Warren County land roll records show Lewis Miller Jr. as the owner, who's also the president of Riverside Construction.
Scenes like that make Stan wonder if any of these companies that operate on the Mississippi River are doing everything they can to protect their employees.
"To me, it don't look like it. There's nobody up and down that river. Coast Guard, OSHA or the Corps of Engineers is doing any kind of safety monitoring on that river," Stan said.
3 On Your Side reached out to Miller to comment on these issues.
In response, the company's lawyer said the employee shown in our video should have been wearing proper personal protective equipment, including a personal flotation device according to Riverside's policies and training.
"The failure to do so is employee misconduct and disciplinary action has been initiated," Feeney said.
Feeney also commented on our video that showed a lack of barriers on either side of that ramp that leads from the shore to the barge.
"The video clearly shows the required rails on the sides of the ramp," he said.
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