(Photo: Getty Images)
A Nashville judge ruled that evidence of human trafficking would be allowed in the case of a 16-year-old who died in a construction-related accident in downtown Nashville last year.
Gustavo Ramirez had been working on a scaffold without a harness during construction of La Quinta Inn on Interstate Drive when he fell 120 feet to his death on June 23, 2020. Reports later showed that Ramirez had been certified as having received training to build scaffolds, despite being a minor. His family subsequently filed a lawsuit against subcontractor Stover & Sons Contractors, Inc., general contractor D.F. Chase, Inc. and EZ Distributing, Inc., accusing the companies of reckless behavior leading to the death of a juvenile.
On Friday, attorneys for the Ramirez family said that Ramirez and other children were recruited to construction jobs through a youth program by Higinio Sanchez-Gonzalez, a pastor at Casa de Oracion, where the family attended church. Attorney Karla Campbell, who represents the Ramirez family, alleged that churches were being used for recruiting minors to work for Stover, adding that three other juveniles had been brought from Mexico to work at construction sites.
“There were four of these young men from Sanchez’s church youth program working on the La Quinta Inn project at the time of Ramirez’s death. It violates child labor laws,” said Campbell.
Chase and Stover’s lawyers asked Judge Hamilton Gayden for the case to be dismissed and calling the human trafficking accusations unsubstantiated. At the crux of the suit, both parties argued over whether Ramirez had been lawfully employed at the time of death and eligible for wrongful death claims. Chase officials said Ramirez lawfully employed by Stover and that they are immune from liability and would not be liable for employees of subcontractors who do have workers compensation.
“There’s a big difference between being sorry and being responsible,” said Craig Allen, an attorney representing Chase.
Despite this, Allen agreed that Chase can be held liable if subcontractor do not have their own workers compensation policy in effect at the time, as required by law.
But the family has yet to receive any compensation, said Campbell, because nobody can prove Ramirez was lawfully employed. At the trial, Campbell played a recording of a conversation between her and Stover’s insurance agent, who said they did not have workers compensation insurance for Ramirez.
“In order to show that this was an employer-employee relationship, we have to show that there was an actual relationship between young Gustavo and somebody, and they simply haven’t done that. Was this a summer job, if so, who was his employer? Was it his youth group program? Was it a criminal enterprise?” said Campbell.
“At best he was a ghost employee, at worst he was the victim of a human trafficking scheme,” she added.
Nashville has been called one of the most dangerous cities in the South for construction workers by immigrant-rights advocates and union workers for the abnormally large number of incidents over the years.
In March, Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda introduced a bill to dissuade Metro Nashville from awarding contracts to companies with records of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations. She accused contractors of using subcontractors to avoid liability.
In April, the Tennessee Senate passed a bill of preemption to prohibit local governments from requiring contractors to adhere to health and safety standards that exceed current state and federal regulations; and to prohibit contractors from being responsible for subcontractors actions. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee on April 22.
Jenifer Enamorado, Ramirez’s sister, said they plan to return to court in 30 days, giving the judge time to review the evidence.
“We are going to continue with the information as we have it. We will not change it, we will not remove it. We will continue,” she said.
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