Worker slowly cooked to death; firm will pay $6 million

LOS ANGELES — Bumble Bee Foods agreed to pay $6 million to settle criminal charges Wednesday in the death of a worker who was cooked in an oven with tons of tuna.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the settlement is the largest payout in a California workplace-violation death.

Jose Melena, 62, died three years ago in a 270-degree oven at the seafood company’s Santa Fe Springs, California, plant after a co-worker mistakenly believed he was in the bathroom and filled a pressure cooker with six tons of canned tuna.

“This is the worst circumstances of death I have ever, ever witnessed,” said Deputy District Attorney Hoon Chun, who noted 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. “

Bumble Bee, its plant Operations Director Angel Rodriguez and former safety manager Saul Florez had each been charged with three counts of violating Occupational Safety &Health Administration rules that caused a death.

Under the agreement, Bumble Bee will be plead guilty to a misdemeanor of willfully failing to have an effective safety program in January 2017 if it completes several safety measures that include upgrading ovens so workers don’t get trapped inside and providing worker training.

“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 San Diego-based company said in a statement.

Florez, 42, of Whittier was sentenced to three years of probation and will face fines and penalties of about $19,000 after pleading guilty to a single felony count of violating a workplace safety rule that caused a death.

Rodriguez, 63, of Riverside, agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in 18 months and pay about $11,000 after he completes 320 hours of community service and worker safety courses.

The two men had faced up to three years in prison and fines up to $250,000 and the company had faced fines up to $1.5 million.

Melena’s family will receive $1.5 million under the settlement. It does not prevent them from also suing the company or receiving workers’ compensation funds, Hoon said.

Melena, 62, 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 state’s occupational safety agency previously cited the San Diego-based company for failing to properly assess the danger to employees working in large ovens and fined it $74,000.

Melena’s family agreed to the settlement, but declined to comment, prosecutors said.

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