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3 charged in pregnant farm worker's death

Three officials at a now-defunct farm labor contractor were charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a pregnant teenager who collapsed from heat stroke.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three officials at a now-defunct farm labor contractor were charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a pregnant teenager who collapsed from heat stroke after working in a sweltering vineyard last year.

San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett announced the charges in the death of 17-year-old Maria Vasquez Jimenez, who authorities say died May 14 because she lacked access to shade and water as she pruned grapevines for more than nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat.

Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, the former owner of Merced Farm Labor; Elias Armenta, the former safety director; and Raul Martinez, a former supervisor, also were charged with one felony and five misdemeanor violations of the state labor code.

The company's civil attorney, Jim Gumberg, said the charges were "very unfortunate." A criminal attorney for the three did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded the charges, saying: "Worker safety from heat illness must and will be protected in California." The state in 2005 implemented the country's first heat-illness standard, requiring that farms and contractors give workers water and breaks, have shade available and have emergency plans in place.

Vasquez Jimenez was born in Mexico's Sierra Madre range and migrated to California's Central Valley last year to look for work and live with her fiance.

The couple found jobs pruning grapes in a Stockton-area vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming Inc., which had a contract with Merced Farm Labor for its work force.

After she collapsed, her fiance, Florentino Bautista, said Vasquez Jimenez's supervisor recommended she rest in a hot van and be revived with rubbing alcohol before Bautista could take her to a medical clinic, almost two hours later. Doctors later realized she was two months pregnant.

Relatives said she was making $8 per hour that day on a 9.5-hour shift — more than four hours over the state limit for minors working during business days.

Family hopes for safer labor conditions
On Thursday, Vasquez Jimenez's aunt said she hoped the charges would encourage safer labor conditions on farms.

"That's good to hear," said Candida Jimenez, who lives in Stockton. "We didn't want nothing to happen after her death. We hope this goes forward."

Last year, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Merced Farm Labor $262,700 for violating eight workplace safety rules, the largest fine ever issued to a California farming operation. The agency said some of the violations were intentional, and the company later surrendered its license.

In a separate civil complaint filed Thursday, Willett charged Colunga, the farm labor contractor and West Coast Grape Farming with engaging in unfair business practices by violating numerous provisions of state labor and workplace safety codes.

Prosecutors are seeking between $27,500 and $5.5 million in civil penalties.

West Coast Grape Farming is a division of the Ceres-based Bronco Wine Co., which makes the popular wine known as Two Buck Chuck. Attorney Malcolm Segal said the company planned to contest the allegations.

A Bronco Wine Co. spokesman said the company did not have any comment.

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