Making a Very Bad Situation Worse: Obstruction of Justice for False Statements in OSHA Worker Fatality Investigation
By: James W. Kraus
Deviating from a disciplined approach to mitigate the impact of government enforcement, whether by shading the truth or outright lies, can have grave consequences.
For any company or individual responding to a government investigation, it is critical that the response be well-organized and disciplined. The core of any effective response is the commitment that all information shared with the government be accurate and truthful. The recent case involving the investigation of a worksite fatality in North Dakota provides a poignant illustration of the consequences when individuals misrepresent facts to investigators.
On March 8, 2021, Stephan Reisinger, a former maintenance manager at an oil services facility in Williston, ND, entered a plea of guilty in federal court to the charge of obstruction of justice. The plea and resulting conviction are based on misstatements made by Reisinger to OSHA investigators regarding a worksite fatality in October of 2014.
Reisinger was a manager at Nabors Completion and Production Services Company (NCPS) at the NCPS Williston facility in 2014. Among the 40 employees he supervised at the facility was 28 year old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Dustin Payne. On October 3, 2014, Payne was killed when the uncleaned tanker trailer that he was welding exploded. The explosion was the result of the welding flame coming in contact with flammable chemicals contained in the “produced water” that had been transported in the tanker trailer.
Federal law makes it illegal to weld on containers that have not been thoroughly cleaned. The tanker trailer that Payne had been welding had not been cleaned prior to Payne beginning welding.
When OSHA investigated Mr. Payne’s death, Reisinger was one of the company representatives interviewed by investigators. He told them that he did not know of the hazards and composition of produced water. Instead, he stated that he thought “just water” was in the tanks. Both of those statements were false. In the plea agreement entered into with the government, Reisinger admitted that he knew the tanker trailers hauled produced water, and that his prior statement that he did not know of the hazards and composition of produced water was false.
In 2019, C&J Well Services, the corporate successor to NCPS pleaded guilty to charges related to Payne’s death, and was sentenced to $2.1 million in fines and restitution. As part of that plea, it was admitted that NCPS, in direct violation of its own policies, failed to provide welding-specific training to Payne or other welders at the Williston facility. As a result, Payne and other welders repeatedly welded on unclean tanks.
Investigations like the one underlying this case can cause high levels of stress to companies and their personnel. NCPS, its employee, and his family had already suffered an unspeakable tragedy. By the time OSHA began its investigation, there was nothing anyone at the company could have done to reverse the tragic event or change the facts leading up to it. Given the high level of stress in such circumstances, great care should be taken, whenever possible, to prepare personnel for interviews. As illustrated by Reisinger’s actions in this case, deviating from a disciplined approach in an attempt to mitigate the impact of government enforcement, whether by shading the truth or outright lies, can have grave consequences.