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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Farm Worker Who Died Due to Heat Stroke

In one of the worst human rights abuses I have heard of in recent memory in this area, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed yesterday at the Merced Superior Court for the death of 17 year old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez. The lawsuit is for wrongful death, general negligence and premises liability.

Maria Isabel, a 17-year-old farm worker from Oaxaca collapsed on May 14 while working for a Merced Farm Laborer in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming outside of Stockton. Maria Isabel, who was two-months pregnant, had worked nine hours in temperatures that reached 100 degrees inside the vineyard. Her body temperature was 108.4 degrees when she was finally taken to a hospital nearly two hours after collapsing. She died on May 16.

The Vanguard spoke yesterday evening with Merlyn Calderon from the United Farm Workers on the Vanguard Radio Show on KDRT 101.5 FM.

Ms. Calderon told us this was Maria Isabel's third day on the job. By 3 pm in 100 degree heat, she had already worked nine hours.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a heat regulation act to protect workers from heat. Among other things this requires employers to provide shade, water, and periodic breaks to laborers. Maria Isabel should have had access to shade and water. However, there was no water provided on the site until 10:30 am when the temperature was already in the 90s. To make matters worse the water was a 10 minute walk away and the workers only received a 10 minute break. Meaning that there was no realistic access to water.

At the point at which, Maria Isabel's boyfriend noticed she was in trouble around 3 pm, she collapsed. The supervisor came over and stood four or five feet from her and told her boyfriend not to worry, this happens all the time, all she needed was some rubbing alcohol to cool her off.

She was placed in the van which was sitting in the sun with no air conditioning. They had to wait until all the workers came back before departing.

There were several additional delays before Maria was taken to a clinic.

Merlyn Calderon told us:
"While in route the foreman called saying, "If you take her to a clinic don’t say she was working [for the contractor]. Say she became sick because she was jogging to get exercise. Since she’s underage, it will create big problems for us." She was so sick an ambulance took her to the hospital."
By the time she got to the hospital her body temperature was 108.4 degree. Her heart stopped numerous times during the next two days.

Doctors said if emergency medical help had been summoned or she had been taken to the hospital sooner, she might have survived. Moreover most of this could have been prevented by simply following the heat regulation law.

Merlyn Calderon told us that there are 80,000 farms in the state of California but only 180 inspectors. She said she wanted to remind people that "the laws on the books are not the laws in the field."

Yesterday the coroner officially ruled the cause of death as heat stroke.

In addition to the lawsuit, UFW is working to give workers the tools to organize in order to prevent future tragedies.

As I said at the onset, this is one of the worst cases of human rights abuses I have seen in this area.

They are not sure that Maria Isabel knew that she was pregnant, apparently her fiance, Folrentino, did not know until after her death.

There is additional information available on the United Farm Workers website.

Merlyn Calderon said that no one from the companies involved have even had the decency to express condolences to Maria's family.
"To date no one from the companies involved has had the decency to express condolences to Maria's family--not the farm labor contractor, not the company who owns the field where Maria labored, nor the wine distributor. There have been no letters, no one showed up at the funeral--nothing. The only reaction they had was to try to shift part of the blame of Maria’s death onto her fiancĂ©, Florentino."
UFW is encouraging people to sign condolence cards to send to Maria's mother in Mexico.

For me the worst part of this is not only the blatant disregard for human life shown by the supervisor and the company, but also the fact that laws are on the books supposedly to protect against such occurrences and there is no enforcement and no resources to enforce with only 180 inspectors to cover tens of thousands of farms. How hard is it to provide people with water, periodic shade and breaks?

While this occurred down in Merced, Yolo County undoubtedly with its vast farms and agriculture undoubted has similar issues that we need to be much more aware of.

Last weekend, the Latino Caucus of the California Democratic Party passed a resolution urging the Governor and the State Legislature to provide additional resources for the necessary enforcement of regulations that protect farmworkers from heat related injuries and deaths.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting