Bumble Bee Foods LLC will pay $6 million to settle criminal charges for the 2012 incident where employee Jose Melena was cooked to death in a pressure cooker at the company’s plant in Santa Fe Springs, California, prosecutors said Wednesday. Melena’s family will receive $1.5 million in restitution under the settlement.
Melena, who worked with Bumble Bee Foods for six years, was cleaning a cooking device called a steamer machine on Oct. 11, 2012, when other employees loaded 12,000 pounds of canned tuna and accidentally trapped him in the back of the oven. Preliminary investigation showed that the 62-year-old “was fatally injured when he was cooked in an oven,” according to Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
"This is the worst circumstances of death I have ever, ever witnessed," Deputy District Attorney Hoon Chun said, according to the Associated Press (AP). "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 Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said in a press release Wednesday that the settlement was the largest-known disbursement in a California criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations involving a single victim.
Under the settlement, the company has been ordered to spend $3 million to replace its outdated ovens so that workers will not have to climb inside to clean them. Bumble Bee Foods, whose corporate headquarters is located in San Diego, will also pay $1.5 million in fines and penalties, according to the district attorney’s office.
As part of the agreement, Bumble Bee Foods will also have to implement enhanced safety measures, including installation of video cameras at ovens and safety audits of plant equipment.
"The sentence will not be formally imposed for another 18 months. … The company would be allowed to plead guilty to willful failure to implement and maintain an effective safety program, a misdemeanor. The plea additionally requires the company to make a public statement conceding guilt,” the district attorney’s office said in the statement.
Two of the company's employees, charged in the case, were also ordered to pay fines. Angel Rodriguez, the plant's director of operations, will have to pay $11,400 and complete 320 hours of community service, while former safety manager Saul Florez was penalized with $19,000 and 30 days of community labor. Rodriguez and Florez will also have to make public statements of guilt.
"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 Melena family said in a statement, the AP reported.