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D.A. to Step Up Job Death Probes

August 23, 1985|PAUL FELDMAN and ROBERT W. STEWART | Times Staff Writers

Deputy district attorneys will be dispatched immediately to the scene of industrial deaths to determine whether criminal charges--including manslaughter or, in rare instances, second-degree murder--should be filed against employers, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner announced Thursday.

Of the approximately 100 industrial fatalities in the county each year, a "very substantial" number result from employer negligence, Reiner asserted in an interview held to explain his new "roll-out" policy.

" 'Accident' is the category routinely utilized in industrial deaths. However, many of these deaths are homicides and my office intends to appropriately prosecute employers for these deaths," Reiner said.

Until now, the only such manslaughter prosecution in Los Angeles County, Reiner said, has been the "Twilight Zone" movie case, in which five defendants, including film director John Landis, were charged in the 1982 deaths of three cast members during a helicopter crash on the set. That case is set for trial in January, 1986.

In a related matter, Reiner's chief deputy, Gilbert I. Garcetti, said the office has reinstituted a policy of automatically dispatching a deputy district attorney to the scene of shootings involving police officers. The "roll-out" policy had been modified by former Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian.

Under Philibosian, district attorney investigators were sent to the scene of each officer-involved shooting, but deputy district attorneys were sent only if requested by the police agency involved in the case.

Individual police departments have the right to decide whether to notify the district attorney's office immediately after a police-involved shooting. Ultimately, however, the office investigates all such shootings, Garcetti said.

The new "roll-out" program for industrial deaths is the district attorney's latest move against employers whose alleged carelessness results in fatalities.

Reiner said Dr. Ronald N. Kornblum, the county's acting chief medical examiner-coroner, has agreed to his request that the district attorney's Occupational Safety and Health Section be promptly notified of all industrial deaths so attorneys and investigators can respond to the scene at once.

After taking office last December, Reiner established the occupational safety unit--which now includes four attorneys and two full-time investigators--under the direction of Special Assistant Dist. Atty. Jan E. Chatten-Brown.

Although the unit has yet to file any cases, Chatten-Brown said, about 20 worker-related deaths are currently under review for possible prosecution.

Additionally, Reiner has sent a letter to 47 Los Angeles County police chiefs and the sheriff asking their departments to help investigate industrial deaths. About 80 law enforcement officers are scheduled to attend a training session sponsored by Reiner's office today to familiarize them with applicable laws.

Specific industries in which a large number of deaths occur, Chatten-Brown said, include oil refining, construction and stevedore work. Homicide prosecution can result, she said, if it can be shown that employers were negligent or exhibited wanton disregard for life.

Until now, Chatten-Brown estimated, 10 or more potential manslaughter prosecutions have gone unfiled each year in Los Angeles County. A key problem, she said, has been the inability of investigators from the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health--there are only a handful of them--to respond promptly. Physical evidence has thus been lost and witnesses have become reticent to testify by the time accidents have been investigated months after the fact, she said.

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