Bumble Bee Settles Worker Death Suit

Monday, November 2, 2015 @ 10:11 AM gHale

Canned-tuna producer Bumble Bee Foods paid a record $6 million settlement in the death of a worker cooked to death in an industrial oven with 12,000 lbs of fish.

In addition, the company and two managers charged in the incident have pleaded guilty.

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The $6 million payout is the largest known in a California criminal prosecution for workplace safety violations involving a single victim, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said after the August settlement.

It all started in October 2012, when Jose Melena, 62, was performing maintenance work in a 35-foot-long industrial oven at Bumble Bee’s Santa Fe Springs plant when a co-worker, thinking Melena was on a bathroom break, filled the pressure cooker with thousands of pounds of tuna and turned it on.

Melena’s supervisor then noticed he was missing, according to a report by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA). A search ended up conducted in the plant and parking lot before workers found his body two hours later – after the oven had reached a temperature of 270 degrees Fahrenheit (132°C).

The settlement will end up split into several parts. Bumble Bee will spend $3 million to replace all of their outdated tuna ovens with new, automated ovens equipped with video cameras that “will not ever require workers to set foot inside the super-heated, pressurized steam cookers.”

Another $1.5 million in restitution will go to Melena’s family. The company will also donate $750,000 to the District Attorney’s Environmental Enforcement Fund for the investigation and prosecution of OSHA criminal cases and for “improving enforcement of workplace safety and compliance rules.” Bumble Bee will pay an additional $750,000 in combined fines, penalties and court costs.

“While this resolution will help bring closure with the district attorney’s office, 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,” Bumble Bee Foods said in a statement.

Along with the financial settlement, the company will plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge of willful failure to implement and maintain an effective safety program within 18 months of complying with the terms of the settlement agreement, which

“I hope it sends a message that safety rules are not a recommendation, they are a legal requirement,” said Hoon Chun, consumer protection division assistant head deputy for the district attorney, who helped prosecute the case.

Prosecutors also charged two managers with three counts of violating OSHA rules, which led to Melena’s death. Both pleaded guilty on Monday as well.

The company’s former safety manager, Saul Florez, pleaded guilty to a felony count of willfully violating lockout tagout rules and proximately causing the victim’s death. He received a sentence of three years of probation, 30 days of community labor and must take safety classes on lockout tagout and confined spaces. He must also pay $19,000 in fines and penalty assessments. If he complies with the terms of his plea within 18 months, his conviction could reduce down to a misdemeanor count.

Bumble Bee’s Director of Plant Operations, Angel Rodriguez, agreed to do 320 hours of community service, pay approximately $11,400 in fines and penalty assessments, and take classes on lockout tagout and confined space rules. If he complies within 18 months, he may plead guilty to a misdemeanor at sentencing.

The company and both men must make public statements admitting their guilt in Melena’s death.