Bumble Bee Foods will pay $6 million in the 2012 death of an employee who was cooked in an industrial oven with tons of tuna — the biggest settlement ever in a California for workplace safety violations involving a single victim, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Jose Melena, 62, was loading a 35-foot-long oven at the company's Santa Fe Springs plant before dawn Oct. 11, 2012, when a co-worker, who mistakenly believed Melena was in the bathroom, filled the pressure cooker with 12,000 pounds of canned tuna and it was turned on, according to a report by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
His body was found two hours later after the pressure cooker, which reached 270 degrees, was turned off and opened.
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The state report, which was filed with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said the manned oven system was inherently dangerous, finding that the chain that pulls carts of tuna into the ovens would sometimes get snagged, requiring operators to enter the ovens to pull the carts through.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Bumble Bee will pay $3 million to replace all of its outdated tuna ovens with automated ovens and will never require workers to set foot inside the super-heated, pressurized steam cookers.
The company will also pay $1.5 million in restitution to Melena's family, and it will pay the district attorney's Environmental Enforcement Fund $750,000 for workplace safety programs and $750,000 in fines, penalties and court costs.
In addition, Saul Florez, Bumble Bee's former safety manager, pleaded guilty to a felony count of willfully violating lockout rules and indirectly causing Melena's death. He was sentenced to three years' probation, ordered to complete 30 days of community labor and assessed $19,000 in fines and penalties, Lacey said.
And another co-defendant, Angel Rodriguez, Bumble Bee's director of plant operations, will be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in 18 months if he completes 320 hours of community service, pays $11,400 in fines and takes classes on confined space rules, Lacey said.
Bumble Bee and both men are required to make public statements conceding guilt under the terms of the settlement.
In a statement, Bumble Bee said it hoped the settlement would bring "closure."
"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," it said.
The two defendants have a year and a half to release a statement.
Alex Johnson is a senior writer for NBC News covering general news and technology and religion. He is based in Los Angeles.