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Vineyard firm fined, manager jailed in Santa Rosa worker's death

Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 10:49 a.m.

A vineyard management company will pay $200,000 in fines and restitution for removing a safety device on a tractor that resulted in the death of one of its workers.

Lodi-based Vino Farms Inc. agreed to the fines Thursday as part of a Sonoma County court settlement that also resulted in a 30-day jail sentence for a company manager, James Poole, 61, of Windsor. He also was ordered to do 80 hours of community service.

Poole pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of the Labor Code that prohibits removal of a manufacturer's safety device.

In this case the “kill switch,” which causes the tractor's engine to stop running and moving forward when the driver leaves the seat, was removed.

Prosecutors said the victim, Jose Antonio Ambriz-Luquin, 37, of Windsor was working alone at a vineyard off Piner Road in Santa Rosa on Jan. 22, 2011 when he tried to get out of the tractor's narrow opening and his clothing got caught.

Without the kill switch operating, the tractor rolled over him, pinning him beneath it.

He was found the next morning, but died several days later from injuries sustained in the accident.

Prosecutor Ann Gallagher White said the safety device had been removed on several of the company's tractors because workers were complaining that it made their seats too hot.

She said that when the accident happened, Ambriz-Luquin was apparently trying to clean out a mechanism on the tractor used to spray herbicide on the vines.

The tractor ran over him, but “if the kill switch had been there, the tractor would have stopped once he got out of the seat,” she said.

An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined Poole had ordered the safety device removed from the seat.

Defense attorney Chris Andrian, who represented Poole, said the kill switch was removed because “the seats got so hot, no one could ride them (the tractors).”

He said they tried to fix the problem, to no avail, so the kill switch was disconnected.

Andrian said the devices are not required by law, and there was a legal question whether someone is required to use a safety feature that doesn't work.

“The reason they didn't fight the case is they cared so much about the guy and felt terrible about it,” Andrian said of his client's willingness to plead no contest, and Vino Farms agreeing to pay restitution to the family of the victim.

He said Poole and Ambriz-Luquin, who had worked for Vino Farms for seven years, were good friends “and cared deeply for each other.”

Andrian said because the accident occurred during the course of employment, the victim's family cannot bring a civil suit against the employer and is limited to seeking a remedy through the workers' compensation process.

Gallagher said “the important thing is employers out there know if there's a safety mechanism on a piece of equipment that an employee of theirs will use, it's important they don't change it, or disconnect it, because tragedy can result from doing it.”

As part of the plea agreement, Vino Farms agreed to pay $100,000 to the victim's family.

The company was ordered to pay another $75,000 to the state of California, as well as $25,000 to Ag Safe, an organization dedicated to worker safety.

An additional $75,000 penalty was suspended, pending successful completion of probation by Vino Farms.

The company agreed to change some of its procedures to comply with worker safety laws and strengthen some of its policies to ensure that its workers will be able to get emergency help when working alone.

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