Authorities on Thursday charged Kaiser International Corp. of San Pedro with causing the death of a dockworker last year by violating six state workplace safety regulations.
The criminal charges, filed by city and county prosecutors, came almost a year to the day after longshoreman Jimmie Garcia Magallanez, who had worked on the docks for 35 years, was struck and killed by a railroad boxcar at Kaiser's coal-loading facility.
Kaiser has denied any negligence in the case.
A search warrant affidavit that preceded the criminal complaint had suggested that Kaiser and several of its top officials might be charged with involuntary manslaughter in Magallanez's death for allegedly failing to provide proper training and safeguards at the yard.
But the criminal complaint, filed by the Los Angeles city attorney's office after a months-long investigation by the district attorney, does not name any Kaiser officials as defendants. Under state law, the allegations of state labor code violations are misdemeanors.
Authorities said Kaiser faces fines of at least $175,000--and as much as $355,000--if it is found guilty of all six charges. The charges allege that it failed to offer proper training for employees and did not provide a safe work environment with such measures as stop signs at the rail yard.
While describing it as a "serious" case, Michael Delaney, who heads the district attorney's Environmental Crimes/OSHA Division, said prosecutors opted to charge Kaiser with state labor code violations, rather than involuntary manslaughter, because the latter would require evidence of "aggravated, reckless and flagrant conduct." That burden of proof, he said, could have been difficult to reach since there were no witnesses to Magallanez's death, which occurred in the early afternoon of Sept. 5, 1996, in the northwest corner of the yard.
"[The complaint] represents a prosecutorial judgment as to what we can demonstrate in a court of law," Delaney said.
But Kaiser attorney Mark J. Werksman disputed that claim.
"Mr. Magallanez's death was an accident. There was nothing the company could have done to prevent it," Werksman said.
He said the company provides adequate training and safety measures. "They have in place adequate warnings," he said. "There are flashing lights [in the rail yard]."
Although authorities, in previous court documents, cited accidents in which rail cars seriously injured two other Kaiser workers, Werksman disputed the contention that the cars can surprise and endanger employees by moving quickly and silently down a slope after they are unloaded.
To the contrary, Werksman said, the trains move only 3 to 6 mph downhill and only after "an ear-splitting" noise signals that an empty rail car has been bumped out of position by one filled with coal.
Since the first of the accidents in 1991, he said, Kaiser's yard has safely unloaded between 50,000 and 100,000 rail cars a year.
"In six years, there have been three accidents. Each one explained, each one distinct, and each one . . . could have been avoided if the workers in question had exercised greater caution," Werksman said. "But nothing the company could have done would have prevented these accidents."
A court hearing on the charges was set for Sept. 23.