Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Bumble Bee Foods LLC agreed Wednesday to pay a $6 million settlement in a criminal case stemming from the death of a man who was trapped in an industrial oven while working at the company’s Santa Fe Springs plant.

“I’ve … been a prosecutor for more than 20 years. I’ve tried more than 40 murder cases, and this is the worst circumstances of death I have ever, ever witnessed,” a deputy D.A. said. “I think any person would prefer to be, if they had to die some way … to be shot or stabbed than to be slowly cooked to death in an oven.”

Under the settlement — described by Los Angeles County prosecutors as the largest known payout in a criminal prosecution in California involving workplace safety violations with one victim — the San Diego-based company will pay $1.5 million to the family of 62-year-old Jose Melena.

Bumble Bee will also spend $3 million to install automated ovens that won’t require workers to go inside, and pay $750,000 to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Environmental Enforcement Fund and another $750,000 in fines, penalties and court costs.

After the money is paid, the company is to plead guilty in January 2017 to a misdemeanor count of willful failure to implement and maintain an effective safety program.

Hoon Chun, assistant head deputy of the District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division, told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor that Melena’s family is “satisfied” with the terms of the settlement.

Outside court, Chun described the circumstances of the worker’s death as “about as bad as you can imagine.”

Melena entered a 35-foot-long cylindrical oven used to sterilize cans of tuna at the plant on Oct. 11, 2012. Co-workers who were unaware that he was inside the oven loaded 12,000 pounds of canned tuna and inadvertently trapped him in the back of the oven.

The Wilmington resident was found dead after the two-hour sterilization process.

Melena’s family, in a statement released shortly after the settlement was announced in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, thanked the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, criminal investigator Brian Baudendistel and Chun “for ensuring that safe work practices are implemented at Bumble Bee to make it a safe work environment for the employees that work hard to provide to their families.”

“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.”

In its own statement after the hearing, the company called it a “tragic accident.”

“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,” the statement says.

The settlement also requires Bumble Bee to implement enhanced safety measures, including installing video cameras at the ovens to ensure safety compliance; providing training to managers and workers about safety rules; and conducting safety audits of plant equipment, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

One of the company’s attorneys, David M. Zinn, told the judge that many of the safety measures are already underway.

The plant’s former safety manager, Saul Florez, 42, of Whittier, pleaded guilty to a felony count stemming from Melena’s death, but the charge could be reduced to a misdemeanor in 18 months if he successfully completes 30 days of community labor, completes two occupational safety classes and pays $5,000 in fines plus penalty assessments and costs. He was also ordered to serve three years on probation.

Angel Rodriguez, Bumble Bee’s director of the plant’s operations, agreed to perform 320 hours of community service, complete occupational safety classes and pay a $3,000 fine plus applicable penalty assessments and costs.

Rodriguez, 63, of Riverside, will be allowed to plead guilty in January 2017 to a misdemeanor charge if he completes those terms.

The company, Florez and Rodriguez were charged earlier this year with three felony counts after a lengthy investigation into Melena’s death.

—City News Service

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