In the community, Local government

Vale irrigation district faces $15 million lawsuit over worker death

The family of a 26-year-old man killed in a work truck accident in 2021 is suing the Vale Oregon Irrigation District and its manager for $15 million, claiming negligence in having the man drive without the proper license in dangerous conditions.

Johnathan Harrison died after the dump truck he was driving rolled off a canal road north of Vale on Oct. 27, 2021.

His father, Shad Harrison, filed the suit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, March 8. The suit names the irrigation district, manager Ty King and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal where repair work was underway at the time of the accident.

King said he would have no comment.

The complaint said Harrison’s life was “cut short by the deliberate intentional or negligent misconduct and/or omissions” by the defendants.

Harrison, born in Salem, worked a firefighter for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for two years and at Romans’ Precision Irrigation before joining the Vale Oregon Irrigation District.

Harrison started work for the irrigation district, a public entity, in February 2020 as a ditch rider, truck driver and laborer. The district, overseen by an elected board of five, manages irrigation water delivery to about 32,000 acres.

Harrison obtained a commercial driver learner’s permit in November 2020, but repeatedly failed tests to obtain his full license, the complaint said. 

King and the district “failed to provide him with proper and adequate training and instruction on the operation of commercial vehicles, or assist him in understanding the test despite his requests for help,” the complaint said. 

“They continued to force Johnny to operate the dangerous vehicles even after his learner’s permit expired,” the complaint continued.

The complaint describes heavy rain in October 2021 that soaked the road along the Vale Project canal north of the city.

“Johnny was nervous and apprehensive about driving on these wet canal roads and requested that he not be required to drive when the roads were wet,” the complaint said. Instead, he was ordered to operate the dump truck.

The truck he was assigned had an “out-of-date and worn-out suspension system,” had defective brakes and “had a tendency to list to one side when carrying heavy loads,” the complaint said.

Harrison was driving a load of scrap concrete when the truck hit a soft shoulder and rolled down an embankment, according to a state investigation. Harrison was pinned under the passenger side of the truck and died at the scene.

Oregon OSHA later fined the district $2,800 for safety violations.

The complaint said King and the district ignored safety requirements and didn’t properly care for equipment.

“King regularly and deliberately forced Johnny and other employees to operate trucks and equipment which were defective and in need of repair and deliberately refused to repair defects after they were identified,” the complaint said. “On at least two occasions prior to Johnny’s death, serious accidents occurred due to defective equipment that could have led to the injury and death of employees.”

The complaint contained no details about the earlier accidents.

The suit seeks $3,954,500 in economic damages for funeral costs and Harrison’s lost earnings, $1 million for his suffering during the accident, and $10 million for his family’s loss.

Bruno Jagelski and Dayna Carter of the Ontario law firm Yturri Rose is handling the complaint for the family.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].

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