Raul Zapata Mercado, a husband and father of three, was killed on January 28, 2012 when a 12-foot trench collapsed on him while he was working at a U.S. Sino Investments Inc. construction site in Milpitas, California.
More than three years after the fatal collapse, in May 2015, the construction company owner, Richard Liu, and the project manager, Dan Luo, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter—in other words, even though they didn’t act maliciously to kill Mercado, they are responsible for unintentionally killing him because their complete disregard for worker safety was so negligent that it rose to the level of a criminal act. Luo was also convicted of three counts of felony labor code violations for violating a safety order and causing a workers death. And on Friday, July 31, both men were sentenced to two years in prison as punishment for committing involuntary manslaughter. This is big news. Criminal charges are far too rare for company owners and executives whose misconduct causes workers to be seriously injured or killed on the job.
The trench collapse was certainly no accident. The company had been contracted to build a large home in Milpitas, but the project was behind schedule and over budget, and there was increasing pressure on the contractors to get the job done. When the licensed subcontractor on the job quit because of nonpayment, Liu and Luo hired Mercado and another unlicensed day laborer to complete the work. Mercado was killed less than two weeks later.
According to officials, Liu was away in China at the time of the collapse and had left Luo to manage the site even though Luo had no experience in construction. Just three days before the fatal trench collapse, a city inspector had ordered Luo to stop work at the site after finding that the retaining walls and trenches weren’t properly supported. Instead of stopping work and fixing the problem, Luo ignored the order.
Following Mercado’s death, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) learned that U.S. Sino Investments, Inc. didn’t even have the proper state permits to dig trenches over five feet. In June 2012, Cal/OSHA cited the company for 14 violations and assessed penalties of $168,175. The firm’s contract license was suspended by the Contractors State License Board because the company had violated state workers’ compensation laws.
Although the corporate entity has also been criminally charged for its role in Mercado’s death, U.S. Sino Investments Inc. is facing a separate trial and hasn’t yet been convicted.
Thousands of workers die every year in avoidable deaths like this one, yet too often, the responsible company and executives walk away unpunished. At worst, they pay a small fine and continue business as usual. When prosecutors step up and charge them for disregarding worker health and safety laws and causing a worker to be seriously injured or killed, it sends a message to other bad actors that they will be held accountable for their criminal misconduct.
Thanks to the diligent work of Cal/OSHA in conducting a thorough investigation and the collaborative efforts of Cal/OSHA and local prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in this case, rather than settle for a minor civil penalty, justice has been served for Mercado. To ensure the message is heard loud and clear, investigators and prosecutors across the nation need to start looking at these egregious worker injury and death cases as the crimes they are, and work together to ensure those who commit such crimes are punished accordingly.