BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - ”Gosh it’s so hard,” says Connie Hay, describing the process of remembering her son, Mason Spurlin, and facing her second Christmas without him.
Connie watched Mason drive away from their home and on his way to work on September 3, 2019, having no idea it was the last time they would ever speak.
Mason drove to work at J&M Tank Lines in Sylacauga that day, where he’d just started working back in mid-July - less than two months before.
“He was very respectful, very good kid,” Hay says. Asked if he was a hard worker, she said, “He was, and that’s why he had the job he had, because it was in the field he wanted to go into.”
Connie says that day, Mason’s bosses sent him down into a storage tank to wash it out between loads.
“He went down and he came up from the tank saying ‘it smells funny, it smells funny,” Connie says. “But they kept telling him ‘go on back down, it’s fine, go on back down.’ As a 20 year old, you’re going to do that because you don’t want to lose your job and you’ve been raised - if the boss tells you to do it, you’ve gotta do it. So he did, and never came out of it. It was over an hour before they found my son in the tank passed out.”
Paramedics rushed Mason first to Coosa Valley hospital then on to UAB, but he died the next day.
“Coosa Valley said his lungs was just scorched - his whole body was just scorched,” Connie recalls. “He was an organ donor and wasn’t even able to donate any organs because they were so damaged from everything. The doctors said that he inhaled some kind of toxic chemicals.”
The autopsy report provided by the family concludes ”environmental asphyxia most likely occurred due to vitiated atmosphere due to mixing of chemicals present at the work site in a confined space.”
An OSHA investigation found five serious violations at J&M including not adequately training or warning employees about working in confined spaces, creating a written plan for how to handle this potentially dangerous work, and not testing the air in the tanks to see if conditions were safe.
“OSHA’s there for a reason,” Connie argues. “OSHA’s there to protect our employees. And if the employers are not going to do that, then why be open and why even have - you’re not protecting your employees.”
We asked J&M for a statement and the company told us: “The J&M family’s thoughts and prayers have and continue to be with the Spurlin and Hay families during this difficult time. We are reminded in this difficult time of this core belief: The Safety of our team members and the motoring public must continue to be at the forefront of J&M’s operations.”
OSHA fined J&M $67,470 for the five serious violations it found, but Connie says the company was able to appeal the fine and paid closer to $50,000.
Under Alabama’s workers’ comp law, because Mason wasn’t married and didn’t have any children, his family is entitled to a $7,500 settlement.
“He had a whole life ahead of him that he was robbed of because this employer didn’t follow safety regulations,” says Kendall Dunson, an employment law attorney at Beasley Allen law firm. “To say that someone’s life beforehand is worth just $7,500 under those circumstances, is a tough pill to swallow.”
Dunson is working with the Hay/Spurlin family and says Alabama’s pre-set workers’ comp rates haven’t changed since he started practicing law in 1996.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had to tell this same story or same explanation to many other families besides Ms. Hay,” Dunson recalls. “In Ms. Hay’s case, it’s even tougher because she can read this OSHA report and see what this employer did, or more importantly, failed to do to prevent her son’s death.”
That’s why Connie wants to change state law by raising those rates and creating an exception to the immunity shield for companies who clearly violate state or federal law.
“I don’t want to take away the whole immunity law,” claims Hay. “Just chip away from it to where, like I’ve told everybody, if you break your arm, I’m not saying you can sue your employer. But if you break federal or state laws, you should be able to be held liable for that.”
“If we can get that changed, not only would that help us and calm and ease us a little bit, but all the thousands of other families and other people that work for these other companies,” says Mason’s dad.
“There’s just really no sense in any family going through this at all,” says Connie.
We reached out to the Business Council of Alabama, the biggest and chief lobbying group for businesses in Alabama, to see if they wanted to comment on or react to the suggestion of changing Alabama’s workers’ comp law. They told us they wouldn’t be making a comment on this topic.
Connie says she plans to meet in person with lawmakers when she can early next year as the new session starts.