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Suit in Death of Worker Targets Farm, Pesticide Firms

August 29, 1985|ADAM Z. HORVATH | Times Staff Writer

The family of a Mexican farm worker who died after working on a farm in Jamul that had been sprayed with pesticides filed a $10-million lawsuit Wednesday against the farmer and the firms that produced, distributed and sprayed the pesticides.

The suit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleges that the chemical companies made pesticides available without fully testing their effects, and that the owner of the farm and his foreman acted improperly when the stricken man collapsed in taking him to a medical clinic in Tijuana instead of to a nearby hospital.

Juan Chabolla Casillas collapsed at Mirada Farms on Aug. 5 as he worked in a tomato field that had been sprayed with pesticides earlier that day.

The cause of his death has not been determined by U.S. authorities.

The Chabolla family's lawyer, Federico Sayre of Los Angeles, said he wanted to set a precedent by charging the chemical companies with inadequate testing of pesticides, as well as recovering damages for Chabolla's death.

"They (pesticides) are nothing but poisons," Sayre said. "You must have safeguards that err on the side of people, not the profit of the growers."

Chabolla, who collapsed during the mid-afternoon, had started working in the field at 8 a.m., an hour after two of the farm's fields had been sprayed. County agriculture officials said that a field where workers were putting down stakes had been sprayed with Monitor and Pydrin; the other field, where workers were picking overripe tomatoes, had been sprayed only with Pydrin.

Chabolla is believed to have worked in both fields.

Monitor is among the highly toxic pesticides covered by a state law that prohibits employers from allowing "substantial and prolonged body contact with the treated plants" within 24 hours of the spraying. County and state agriculture officials are investigating how much contact Chabolla had with the sprayed plants.

Van Cheney, an official with the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said Wednesday that the department is re-evaluating its approval of Monitor because the chemical may have delayed effects on the nervous systems of people who work with it.

Sayre said the companies named in the suit had failed to test the effects of combining Monitor with Pydrin. Spokesmen for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Food and Agriculture confirmed that no such tests were required for the chemicals to gain approval for use. But they said it was unlikely there would be harmful effects from combining the pesticides.

When Chabolla collapsed after complaining of dizziness and nausea, farm owner Fred Hatashita and his foreman, Jesus Sanchez, drove Chabolla to an emergency clinic in Tijuana, where he was pronounced dead. Some farm workers said Chabolla died at the farm, but Hatashita said he thought Chabolla was still alive when he was put in the van.

Hatashita could not be reached for comment Wednesday about the suit. He previously said he didn't think pesticides were connected with Chabolla's death because no other workers were affected.

Robert Bucklin, supervising pathologist for the San Diego County coroner, said Wednesday that his autopsy showed some evidence that Chabolla had heart disease, but said a final autopsy result would not be available until state toxicologists finish analyzing Chabolla's body tissues for presence of Monitor.

That analysis was complicated because Chabolla's body was autopsied and embalmed in Mexico, but "if (Monitor) is there, their techniques are bound to pick it up," Bucklin said. He said he disagreed with a Mexican autopsy finding that said the cause of death was asphyxiation due to vomiting.

Sayre said Hatashita took Chabolla, an illegal alien, to Mexico because "he wanted to get rid of him," and said the suit would draw much-needed attention to the plight of illegal aliens exposed to dangerous chemicals. "The people who pick the crops happen to be without a green card. . . . They can't vote. They're not a constituency," he said.

The official investigation into Chabolla's death is not expected to be completed before mid-September. If the investigation turns up evidence for a criminal prosecution, the maximum fine would be $1,000 on each count of pesticide misuse, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Josephine Kiernan. But she said evidence of gross negligence could also produce a manslaughter charge.

Named as defendants in the suit were Chevron Chemical Co. and Mobay Agricultural Chemical Co., which Sayre said distributed and produced the Monitor used at the farm; Hummingbird, Inc., which Sayre said sprayed the pesticides; Shell Chemical Co., Sumitomo Chemical Co., Ciba-Geigy Corp., Velsico Chemical Co. and Monsanto Corp., which Sayre said are manufacturers and distributors of Pydrin; Hatashita; Sanchez, and Mirada Farms.

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