A California woman is taking the nation's biggest garbage-hauling company to court in Multnomah County this week over the death of her schizophrenic brother, who suffocated inside a trash compactor six years ago.
Richard Phelps, 47, was apparently sleeping in a dumpster in the small hours of Jan. 30, 1997, when a garbage truck operated by USA Waste of Oregon emptied the dumpster into its hopper, and then compacted its load--with Phelps inside--en route to the Metro waste-transfer station in Northwest Portland.
His lifeless body was discovered on a conveyor belt (see "Crushed by Indifference?," WW, Nov. 27, 2002).
Barbara Bassett, Phelps' sister, seeks $10 million in punitive damages for "reckless and outrageous indifference" to the lives of homeless people. The family's attorney, Greg Kafoury, told jurors Tuesday in Multnomah County Court, "They know if their practices do not change, human lives will be at risk."
The defendant, USA Waste of Oregon, is a wholly owned subsidiary of garbage goliath Waste Management Inc., which last year posted profits of $822 million. USA Waste says it cannot be liable for people who crawl into dumpsters. "Our client is not responsible for this death," says Jeffrey A. Johnson, the firm's attorney.
Six people have been crushed to death in garbage trucks in the state since 1988, according to Oregon death records, and a transfer-station supervisor is quoted in legal documents saying she has heard of another eight to 10 survivors arriving at Metro waste stations in that time.
Because the victims are almost by definition homeless, these accidents typically generate scant attention. But Bassett hopes her lawsuit will force garbage companies to install better safeguards to prevent similar accidents.
A commercial photographer who held a master's degree in advertising, Phelps developed symptoms of schizophrenia in the 1980s, lost his business and his family, and wound up on the streets of Chicago.
With his sister's help, Phelps made a partial recovery. He called Bassett from Portland on Jan. 26, 1997, with a confused story about losing his car. She didn't learn he was dead until several months later.
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, was scheduled for November but delayed while the two sides sought an out-of-court settlement.