Tuna Company Agrees to Pay $6M in Death of Worker Trapped in Oven

Jose Melena died three years ago after cooking for two hours in an oven that reached 270 degrees at a Bumble Bee Foods seafood plant

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Family Photo

Bumble Bee Foods has agreed to pay $6 million to settle criminal charges in the death of a Los Angeles-area worker who was cooked in an oven with tons of tuna.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the settlement announced Wednesday is the largest payout in a California workplace violation death. The settlement includes a $1.5 million payment to the family of Jose Melena, who died three years ago in a 270-degree oven at the company's Santa Fe Springs plant.

Melena was trapped in the oven, cooking for two hours, after a co-worker mistakenly believed he was in the bathroom and filled a pressure cooker with 12,000 pounds of canned tuna.

The San Diego-based company will also upgrade ovens, pay fines and penalties and provide $750,000 to the district attorney's office to fund workplace safety investigations. The upgrades include videos to monitor safety around the ovens, training for managers and workers about safety rules and safety audits of plant equipment, according to the DA's office.

"I hope it sends a message that safety rules are not a recommendation, they are a legal requirement," said Hoon Chun, assistant head deputy of the Consumer Protection Division. "I've been a prosecutor for more than 20 years. I've tried more than 40 murder cases, and this is the worst circumstances death I have ever witnessed ."

The victim's family members are still "very much in shock," Chun said.

The Melena family issued a statement after the settlement: "On behalf of the family, we would like to thank Cal OSHA for their thorough investigation, Criminal Investigator Brian Baudendistel for his excellent work and support of our family, and Deputy District Attorney Hoon Chun at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office 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."

NBC4 received a statement from Bubble Bee Foods, which called Melena's death an "unfathomable loss."

"Bumble Bee has reached a settlement with the Los Angeles District Attorney's office related to the tragic accident that occurred at our Santa Fe Springs plant in October 2012," the company said in a statement. "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."

Terms of the agreement will be imposed next year. If the company fails to comply, it would be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

A former safety manager at the Southern California seafood plant also pleaded guilty in the workplace death. Saul Florez was sentenced to probation and ordered Wednesday to pay about $19,000 in fines and penalties, according to the DA's statement.

He pleaded guilty to a felony count of willfully violating lockout-tagout rules and proximately causing the victim's death. Lockout-tagout rules are developed to avoid the inadvertent activation of a machine when it's being maintained, repaired or adjusted. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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