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Teen Farmworker's Death Brings Involuntary Manslaughter Charges

Vida En El Valle, News Report, Staff Posted: May 12, 2009

STOCKTON, Calif. -- Three people are charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of pregnant 17-year-old field worker Mara Isabel Vsquez Jimnez, who died of heat stroke two days after collapsing in a vineyard.

Just that day, California's occupational safety agency issued a heat-danger warning to employers.
Her death spurred Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to order more aggressive enforcement of a worker-safety program.

District Attorney James P. Willett on Thursday filed the charges against former operators of Atwater-based Merced Farm Labor, which has since been shut down by the state.

Lodi resident Jimnez collapsed in a Farmington vineyard under the contractor's supervision on May 14, 2008, when temperatures peaked at 95. Jimnez was two months pregnant. Adequate water and shade were not provided to the workers, a state investigation concluded.

Charged are Mara De Los ngeles Colunga, owner of the labor company, Elas Armenta, former safety director, and Ral Martnez, former supervisor. They face one felony and five misdemeanor charges for failing to provide Jimnez with reasonable access to potable water, shade, heat illness training and prompt medical attention, according to the complaint. If convicted, each faces a minimum prison sentence of two years to a maximum of six years.

Doroteo Jimnez, the teen's uncle, said he was surprised by the county's action.

"In reality, I thought they weren't taking it seriously. This is something that gives us a little hope," he said. "At least, justice is being served."

Also on Thursday, the county filed a civil enforcement action saying De Los ngeles Colunga and the owner of the farm where Jimnez fell ill, West Coast Grape Farming, Inc., violated state labor laws by not implementing state-mandated practices on heat illness prevention. The lawsuit seeks civil penalties of at least $500,000 for Merced Farm Labor, De Los ngeles Colunga, and West Coast Grape Farming.
De Los ngeles Colunga could not be reached for comment on Thursday -- the company's telephone greeting said the contractor no longer operates.

West Coast Grape Farmings attorney, Sacramento-based Malcolm Segal, said he hadn't reviewed the complaint, but said, "The company will respond appropriately to the allegations. Needless to say, it's always tragic when a person loses a life, but, these are legal issues, which will be addressed at the appropriate time and place."

West Coast Grape is owned by the Franzia family, which also owns Bronco Wine Co., the producer of Charles Shaw wines.

Schwarzenegger, who in 2005 enacted heat-illness prevention laws and who made a sudden appearance at Jimnez's funeral last year, issued a statement after the county's filing: "I fought to adopt the strongest and first heat regulations in the nation because worker safety from heat illness must and will be protected in California, and I applaud the San Joaqun County District Attorney's office for their actions today.

"Employers and labor contractors be forewarned -- comply with the heat illness prevention standards put into law in 2005 or be prosecuted to the absolute fullest extent of the law. Every single worker in California is valued and must and will be treated that way in the workplace."

But despite those laws, on that hot May day in 2008, Jimnez had been working nine hours -- more than four hours over the state's limit for minors working during business days -- pruning grapevines when she collapsed on the work site.

Jimnez's family said supervisors attempted to revive her by placing an alcohol-soaked cloth over her face, but when that didn't work they released the teenage farm laborer to her fianc, 21-year-old Florentino Batista, who had been working alongside her.

Bautista drove her to a clinic. She was then transported to Lodi Memorial Hospital, where she died of a heat stroke two days later, the county coroner confirmed. Her core temperature had reached 108 degrees, the coroner said.

State investigators later concluded that the work site didn't have adequate shade or water availability, nor did it have adequate training standards.

The state has since revoked De Los ngeles Colunga's contractor license and fined her $262,700, the largest fine assessed to a labor contractor, for labor violations concerning Jimnez.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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