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Three charged in connection with death of Lodi farmworker

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Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:00 pm | Updated: 6:43 am, Wed Oct 27, 2010.

Prosecutors on Thursday filed manslaughter charges, as well as civil charges, against three people in connection with the death of a 17-year-old Lodi girl who died after working in the heat in a Farmington vineyard.

Maria Vasquez Jimenez died May 14 of last year of heatstroke, two days after she collapsed while working during a heat wave in which temperatures rose to the mid-90s.

Her death drew wide attention after state officials said her employer had violated labor laws. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Lodi on the day of her funeral.

Merced Farm Labor, for whom Vasquez Jimenez had worked, has been fined more than $262,000, the largest amount against an agricultural firm since the state passed more stringent heat illness prevention laws in 2005.

The firm's owner, Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, was one of the three charged Thursday by San Joaquin County prosecutors. Also charged were the company's safety coordinator, Elias Armenta, as well as foreman Raul Martinez.

Each is charged with felony involuntary manslaughter, a felony labor code violation and five misdemeanors, including violating heath standards resulting in death, failure to provide access to drinking water, failure to provide access to shade and failure to provide heat illness training to employees.

The penalty for involuntary manslaughter ranges from probation to three years in state prison; other charges could add to that sentence.

All three are scheduled to appear May 5 in Stockton court. They have not been arrested but were instead sent letters ordering them to appear.

"They weren't likely to flee, nor were they a risk to public safety, so we're giving them the opportunity to surrender in court," said Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming, who filed the charges.

Prosecutors also filed civil charges against Colunga and the defunct Merced Farm Labor, as well as West Coast Grape Farming, which owned the vineyard.

Each faces civil fines of at least $500,000, up to $5.5 million.

West Coast Grape Farming is part of Bronco Wine, whose founder makes Charles Shaw wine, also known as Two Buck Chuck.

A call to the Ceres-based company was referred to spokesman Harvey Posert, who said the company had no comment. The company's Sacramento attorney, Malcolm Segal, hadn't seen the complaint but said he plans to contest it.

"Obviously, everyone is sympathetic to a situation where there's been a loss of life, but as a purely legal matter, we do not believe that West Coast has any legal responsibility for the charges in the civil complaint," Segal said.

Vasquez Jimenez had traveled from Mexico with her boyfriend, performing manual labor in fields and orchards to make more money for her family back home.

After she collapsed, her fiance, Florentino Bautista, said Vasquez Jimenez's supervisor recommended she rest in a hot van. She was then driven from the field to a store, where her fellow workers bought rubbing alcohol to try to revive her.

Fleming noted that the store was very close to a fire station, where Vasquez Jimenez could have gotten medical care.

"That's why you have to have programs to teach people what to do in those kinds of situations," Fleming said.

Instead, Vasquez Jimenez was taken to a Lodi clinic and then to Lodi Memorial Hospital almost two hours after her collapse. Doctors later learned she was two months pregnant.

The state Department of Industrial Relations shut down her employer, Merced Farm Labor, a month later, after finding that the business had violated state regulations regarding heat safety.

Another farm labor company operating in the same vineyard, Galt-based Solis Farm Labor Contractor, was also shut down and fined almost $78,000.

News of the criminal charges was welcome news to Vasquez Jimenez's aunt.

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

Relatives said Vasquez Jimenez 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.

Schwarzenegger, who had pushed for the heat regulations that four years ago became the country's first heat-illness standard, applauded prosecutors for the filing.

"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," the governor said in a written statement. "Every single worker in California is valued and must and will be treated that way in the workplace."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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  • posted at 8:17 am on Fri, Apr 24, 2009.


    Cogito, As I stated, this was not her first time in the fields and I rather think she knew what was expected of her. Trimming vines doesn`t require a PhD. Many people were involved in her death, mainly herself, her boyfriend who could be arrested and charged with a crime since he is an adult and she is a minor. Being 2 months pregnant might have played a part in her demize. I am always against shyster and lawyers, however in this case I hope the owners and contractor hire the best money can by.

  • posted at 7:53 am on Fri, Apr 24, 2009.


    The UFW has been decimated by illegal immigration. Cesar Chavez was a bug foe of illegal immigration because he knew illegals steal jobs from those he represented. Someone needed to step up and take care of this young woman before she went to work. Whether it was her family, friends, or labor contractor, someone should have let her know what to expect.

  • posted at 5:50 am on Fri, Apr 24, 2009.


    A tragedy that could have been averted if only the Mexican girls boy friend and uncle knew what to do. To put her in a van at twice the temp. not the smartest thing to do. Should have called 911 when the girl passed out. She along with her boy friend came from Mexico, most likely illegal and had worked the orchards and fields as they worked their way north, sending tax free money to family`s in Mexico. It is a personal responability for everyone to take care of themselves and bring enough water and proper clothing. Now anyone that does the hiring will have to make sure they are legal, over 18 teen, and sign a form stating they know the conditions they are working under. Field workers are not the only people that work under these conditions, anyone that works out door constructions knows what I mean. It gets hot in the valley during the summer months. Concerning a union, I believe a person named Chavez started one years ago, just what everyone needs, another union. That`s why the UAW and Detroit are out of business.

  • posted at 2:30 am on Fri, Apr 24, 2009.


    Such a tragedy. I have family who works out in the grape fields in Lodi and surrounding areas, and the field owners are more than courteous when it gets to be unbearable (weatherwise). Still, that should not take away from all the violations this company did in regards to this tragic situation



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