LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Bumble Bee Foods has agreed to a workplace settlement that is being called the largest of its kind in Los Angeles County history.
The settlement agreement requires Bumble Bee Foods LLC to pay $6 million for willfully violating worker safety rules, the largest known payout in a California criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations involving a single victim, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement.
“This is the worst circumstances of death I have ever, ever witnessed,” said Deputy District Attorney Hoon Chun, who noted that he had tried more than 40 murder cases over two decades. “I think any person would prefer to be — if they had to die some way — would prefer to be shot or stabbed than to be slowly cooked in an oven. “
The canned tuna company and two of its Santa Fe Springs plant managers were charged in April in the 2012 death of 62-year-old Jose Melena, who was cooked to death after becoming trapped inside a steam oven.
The settlement calls for Bumble Bee Foods to pay $3 million to replace the tuna ovens with new, automated ovens that will not require workers to step inside and $1.5 million in restitution to Melena’s family.
The settlement does not prevent the Melena family from also suing the company or receiving workers’ compensation funds, Hoon said.
“Certainly, nothing will bring back our dad, and our mom will not have her husband back, but much can be done to ensure this terrible accident does not happen again,” the family said in a statement.
The company will also pay $750,000 into the District Attorney’s environmental enforcement fund and another $750,000 toward penalties and court costs.
Bumble Bee and two plant managers – Saul Florez, the former safety manager, and Angel Rodriguez, the company’s director of plant operations – had been scheduled for a hearing in court Wednesday, the day the settlement was announced.
Melena had been loading pallets of canned tuna into 35-foot-long ovens at the company’s Santa Fe Springs plant before dawn Oct. 11, 2012.
When a supervisor noticed him missing, an announcement was made on the intercom and employees searched for him in the facility and parking lot, according to a report by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
His body was found two hours later after the pressure cooker was turned off, cooled and opened.
The agreement also requires Bumble Bee to implement enhanced safety measures, such as installing video cameras at their ovens to ensure safety compliance, providing training to managers and workers about safety rules and conducting safety audits of their plant equipment.
The District Attorney’s Office said the sentence will not be formally imposed for 18 months. If at that time Bumble Bee has been found to comply with the terms of the settlement, the company will be allowed to plead guilty to willful failure to implement and maintain an effective safety program, a misdemeanor.
Rodriguez, 63, of Riverside, agreed to do 320 hours of community service, pay about $11,400 in fines and penalty assessments and take classes on lockout tagout and confined space rules. If found to be in compliance, Rodriguez will be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in 18 months, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Florez, 42, of Whittier, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony count of willfully violating lockout tagout rules and proximately causing Melena’s death and was sentenced to three years of formal probation. Florez was also ordered to complete 30 days of community labor, take classes on lockout tagout and confined spaces, and pay $19,000 in fines and penalty assessments. Florez will be eligible to have his felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor if found in compliance with the terms and conditions of his plea agreement in 18 months, District Attorney’s officials said.
The two men had faced up to three years in prison and fines up to $250,000. The company had faced fines up to $1.5 million.
The San Diego-based company is appealing $74,000 in fines by the state’s occupational safety agency for failing to properly assess employee danger.
“We will never forget the unfathomable loss of our colleague Jose Melena and we are committed to ensuring that employee safety remains a top priority at all our facilities,” the company said in a statement.
Workplace violation prosecutions are fairly uncommon — even after deaths. Of 189 fatality investigations opened by the state in 2013, only 29 were referred to prosecutors and charges were only filed in 14 cases that year, according to state records.
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