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Bumble Bee Foods LLC pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge stemming from the death of a Wilmington man who was cooked for two hours while trapped inside an industrial oven 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.”

The pleas — which were anticipated under a $6 million settlement reached with the San Diego-based company in 2015 — stem from the Oct. 11, 2012, death of 62-year-old Jose Melena.

Melena entered a 35-foot-long cylindrical oven used to sterilize cans of tuna at the plant. 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.

He was found dead after the two-hour sterilization process. After the 2015 hearing, Chun described the circumstances of Melena’s death as “about as bad as you can imagine.”

Bumble Bee paid $1.5 million to Melena’s family, along with paying $750,000 to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s Environmental Enforcement Fund and another $750,000 in fines, penalties and court costs.

The company also modernized equipment at its Santa Fe Springs facility, spending “well in excess” of the $3 million contemplated under the settlement, said Hoon Chun, assistant head deputy of the District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division.

The prosecutor told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor that the prosecution is satisfied that all of the terms of the settlement agreement have been satisfied, noting that he had visited the plant and seen the measures that Bumble Bee had taken.

The company and 64-year-old Angel Rodriguez, who was the director of the plant’s operations at the time, each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Labor Code violation, which was reduced from a felony count. Two other counts alleging Labor Code violations were dismissed.

The plant’s former safety manager, Saul Florez, now 43, pleaded guilty in August 2015 to a felony count that was reduced to a misdemeanor after he complied with the conditions of his plea agreement, which included 30 days of community labor and completion of two occupational safety classes, according to the prosecutor. Florez remains on probation for another 18 months, Chun said.

The judge said his thoughts and prayers were with Melena’s family. He noted the “extraordinary gravity of what happened here” and said he hopes he will never see a similar case again.

The victim’s family in a 2015 statement thanked authorities 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,” the family statement said.

In its own statement after the August 2015 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.”

-City News Service 

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