Bumble Bee Foods to pay $6 million over worker killed in tuna oven

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Bumble Bee Foods will pay a record $6 million to settle criminal charges filed after a worker burned to death nearly three years ago inside an industrial oven packed with canned tuna, Los Angeles prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The settlement represents the largest payout in the criminal prosecution of a workplace safety case involving a single victim in California, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

Under the settlement agreements, Bumble Bee will spend $3 million to buy new ovens at its plant in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Fe Springs that employees will not be required to enter and implement other safety measures.

The company will also pay $1.5 million in restitution to the family of victim Jose Melena, $750,000 to the district attorney's environmental enforcement fund and another $750,000 in additional fines, penalties and court costs.

Once it complies with those conditions, Bumble Bee, which is owned by private equity firm Lion Capital LLP, will be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge, according to the district attorney's office.

"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," Bumble Bee said in a written statement.

Prosecutors say Angel Rodriguez, the plant's director of operations, has agreed to perform 320 hours of community service, pay $11,400 in fines and other penalties and take workplace safety classes. If he completes those conditions he will be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

Under a separate agreement, Saul Florez, the plant's former safety manager, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to criminal safety violations and was sentenced to three years probation.

Florez was also ordered to complete 30 days of community labor, attend safety classes and pay $19,000 in fines. Upon completion of those conditions he will be eligible to have his felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, prosecutors said.

Melena, who had worked for Bumble Bee for about six years, crawled into the 35-foot-long (11-meter) cylindrical pressure cooker on Oct. 11, 2012 as part of his duties.

Co-workers who were unaware that Melena, 62, was still inside the apparatus then packed 12,000 pounds (5,443 kg) of canned tuna inside, closed the door and turned it on. His badly burned remains were later discovered by another employee.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)