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Construction Owner, Project Manager Sentenced to Unprecedented Jail Time for Worker’s Death in CA

The work site in question.

The work site in question.

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The owner of an Alameda, California construction company and a project manager have been sentenced to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter following the death of a day laborer on their worksite.  The victim, 36-year-old Raul Zapata, died after thousands of pounds of rocks and dirt collapsed from a hillside into a ditch he was working in.  Just three days earlier the project had been red tagged following heavy rains when inspectors noted a lack of shoring on the 12-foot high excavation. 

For their part in ignoring the stop work order, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge William J. Monahan imposed the minimum two-year sentence on Richard Liu, owner of U.S. Sino Investment in Fremont, and Project Manager Dan Luo.

A Cal/Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation found that the victim and his co-workers were not wearing proper headgear at the time of the accident.  They also determined that “no competent person for excavation” was supervising the job site.  In a news release announcing the investigation’s findings, Christine Baker, Director of the Department of Relations, said:

“California employers must provide workers with the necessary protection and training so they can do their jobs safely.  When our investigations uncover negligent behavior by employers, we exercise our full jurisdiction to protect workers – including referrals to district attorneys for prosecution.”

Prosecutor Bud Porter successfully argued that Liu and Luo lacked experience building on hillsides and ultimately cared more about saving money than their workers’ safety. “This wasn’t an accident,” Porter said.  “It was a homicide.”

Porter believes it is the first time in over 30 years that a California jury has convicted an owner or manager of involuntary manslaughter in a workplace death.  The last time was in 1982, he believes, when a Los Angeles County jury convicted the manager of a water reclamation plant in Burbank after two workers who lacked gas masks died from fume inhalation. Dave Cogbill, executive director of the California Building Industry Association, added: “This is certainly the first instance of its kind I’ve ever heard of.”

The sentence could send a message to contractors who are seeking to cut corners amidst a building boom.  Prosecutors in Alameda County are currently deciding whether to press charges against Segue Construction after a balcony at a building they constructed collapsed, killing six Berkeley students.  City investigators found that rotting wood beams caused the collapse.  Segue had just paid $6.5 million to settle two lawsuits over dry rot at other apartment buildings.  

U.S. Sino Investment owner Richard Liu is also being sued in civil court by the victim’s family.  His lawyer in both cases, Michael Reiser, says that he will appeal the verdict. They blame Zapata’s death on subcontractor negligence and suggest that prosecutor Bud Porter “played off the jurors prejudices that Chinese people are cheap.”  

Speaking to The San Jose Mercury News, Porter called the accusations “pathetic.”  


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