Press Release December 2023

We filed the Petition below with the Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission to seek approval to proceed with a wrongful death case in Lonoke County Circuit Court for the intentional, outrageous, and murderous conduct of KAJACS Contractors, Inc., that resulted in the death of its employee, Evangelio Montes, Jr., when the trench he and his crew were digging collapsed on him and others near England, Arkansas on August 28, 2023.

KAJACS intentionally ignored safety regulations and standards in the construction industry by refusing to protect its employees from danger in order to save construction costs and to meet its deadline for completion.  KAJACS has a long history of ignoring safety regulations, including the failure to provide cave-in protection during the excavation of trenches.  KAJACS and its owners have also been found guilty of federal criminal charges for mail fraud schemes that took advantage of its employees, and its owner, Michael Persons, was found guilty in federal court for obtaining $17 million in federal contracts after falsely claiming that he was a descendant of the Cherokee tribe.

On August 28, 2023, KAJACS was just a month away from its deadline to complete the project known as the Bayou Meto Water Management District Orlicek 1 & 2 Sandage 1 Pumping Station which included the construction of 41,000 feet of 24 inch PVC pipeline near England, Arkansas.  KAJACS was awarded the $5,618,200 public project after promising it would comply with all OSHA safety regulations related to trenching.  In fact, KAJACS had no intention of complying with the safety regulations, and has lied to OSHA and the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office in its attempt to cover-up its misconduct by placing the blame for the trench collapse on its employees.

Just two months before the trench collapse, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent an email dated June 22, 2023 to Daniel Hollinger of Garver Engineering, warning that, “We are having issues with some of the KAJACS crew not doing proper trench safety.  The crew has been verbally been told multiple times from both Will Bowls and myself that if a trench box is not being utilized that benching or sloping must happen and that all benching or sloping must follow OSHA guidelines.”  In response, Garver forwarded the email to KAJACS’ Philip Wagner warning KAJACS that, “The ground is very unstable in some areas…We will take further action if we continue to have trench safety issues.  Kajacs is ahead of schedule, so there is no reason to cut corners on safety.”  Emphasis added.

Despite the warning, KAJACS continued to put its crew in danger by refusing to provide proper trench cave-in protection.  On August 28, 2023, KAJACS employee Robert Healy was operating  a track hoe and stopped digging to allow Steven Milsap to enter the trench to shoot an elevation when the trench collapsed burying him alive.  His co-worker and best friend, Evangelio Montes, Jr., immediately jumped in the trench and dug Milsap out with his hands saving Milsap’s life.  Unfortunately, Milsap was trapped from the waist down and could not be removed.  Montes continued digging to no avail until first responders arrived, and while all were digging by hand to get Milsap out, the trench collapsed again, trapping first responders and killing Montes.

According to the members of the crew (Robert Healy, Evangelio Montes, Steven Milsap, and Michael Weaver) each has stated that they never received any safety training from KAJACS.  Further, no proper trench cave-in protections were provided or required by KAJACS throughout the project.

While Milsap was trapped and before Montes was killed, KAJACS’ owner, Aaron Person, KAJACS’ Project Manager Phillip Wagner, and KAJACS’ Project Safety Manager Michael Titsworth all stood at the lip of the trench watching the rescue effort, but never said anything to anyone in the trench about the danger of another cave-in.  When KAJACS’ Project Safety Manager Michael Titsworth was being interviewed on the scene during the rescue effort, he lied to law enforcement that his crew had been trained, but “they did not do what they were trained to do.”

One of KAJACS’ supervisors on the scene commanded other KAJACS employees to stop recording the rescue effort, to delete all pictures, and told the employees, “Keep your mouths shut.  If you want to keep your jobs, get out of here.”  After Montes was killed, KAJACS Project Manager Phillip Wagner encouraged employee, Robert Healy, to forge the signatures of his crew members on documents that the crew had received safety training.  During his interview with OSHA, Healy admitted he and his crew had received no safety training, and he admitted to forging the signatures for fear of losing his job.

Before his interview with OSHA, Healy was coached by a KAJACS’ attorney to mislead the OSHA investigators about the safety of the trench he was digging.  KAJACS’ attorney also offered Healy hush money if Healy would agree to sign a document admitting that he was at fault for the trench collapse.  Healy refused to sign and was told by a KAJACS’ attorney that the reason he was being fired was it would look good to OSHA.

In Arkansas and other states, employees are not allowed to sue their employers for wrongful death unless the conduct of the employer is intentional.  Undoubtedly, KAJACS is relying on the Workers Compensation Act to shield it from being sued for the wrongful death of Montes.  Our effort is to convince the Workers Compensation Commission that KAJACS’ intentional, outrageous, and murderous conduct must not be tolerated and that the Commission should allow this wrongful death case to be pursued in the appropriate Circuit Court.

The Arkansas Workers Compensation Act must not be allowed to protect employers from liability for knowingly causing the death of their employees.

Click here to read the Petition.

Gary Green
Robert A. Ginnaven III
Law Offices of Gary Green
1001 La Harpe Boulevard
Little Rock, AR 72201
501-224-7400 (P)
501-224-2294 (F)

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