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California and the West

Farmer Faces Suit in Death of Worker

Courts: Growers can be held financially liable for letting employees live in dangerous conditions, appellate panel rules.

July 09, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — In a decision hailed by farm worker activists, a court has ruled that farmers can be held financially liable for the widespread practice of letting their workers live in unsanitary and fire-prone hovels near the growing fields.

Although the decision was based on a single case, it could be used as a legal precedent in the fight to upgrade farm worker housing, attorneys said.

The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled this week that an Oceanside strawberry grower can be sued for negligence for a 1994 fire that killed one farm worker and severely burned another.

The workers were living rent-free in plastic-covered shanties they had erected on property leased by grower Ichiro Kosha. The shanties were set ablaze by a candle or discarded cigarette.

"This decision extends to migrant workers the same rights that other people have: to live in dwellings that are habitable," said San Diego attorney Terry Singleton, who is representing the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for Kosha, a longtime grower in agriculture-rich San Diego County, had maintained that he could not be held responsible for the flash fire because he had not built the housing, nor did he supervise it like a landlord.

In another case of a farm worker killed by fire, the same court ruled in 1992 that a farmer cannot be held liable for injuries suffered by workers living on his property without his knowledge.

In the Oceanside case, the court voted 3-0 that Kosha can be sued for damages by the widow and five children of worker Humberto Barcenas and by injured worker Manuel Reyes. Both workers were from Oaxaca, Mexico, and possessed U.S. work permits.

By providing portable toilets, running water and by setting rules such as a prohibition on women and relatives, Kosha fit the state Employee Housing Act definition of a landlord, the appeals court ruled.

The case will return to San Diego Superior Court so a trial can decide whether Kosha should be held financially liable or whether Reyes and the Barcenas family are not entitled to damages because the workers knew the dangers of living in substandard conditions in a ravine. Superior Court Judge Lisa Guy-Schall had thrown the case out of court because "the risk of fire was an obvious risk" that Reyes and Barcenas had accepted.

Nothing in the decision, issued Tuesday, requires growers to provide housing for their workers.

"All this says is that if farmers decide to provide housing, it must be decent and safe," said Singleton. "And it provides tools for those who have been abused to seek redress."

Substandard housing for workers in California agriculture has been a political issue for decades with laws and lawsuits aimed at ending the specter of farm workers living in filthy conditions. Still the problem persists.

Claudia Smith, director of the San Diego office of California Rural Legal Assistance, suggested that the decision will assist in the fight to upgrade farm worker housing. But Singleton said that in the short run, the decision could actually encourage growers to oust farm workers from their ramshackle huts so the growers cannot be held liable for problems or injuries.

At the same time, Singleton said, the court decision could lead to better housing in the long run.

"Farmers are going to have to realize it is in their own economic interest to have housing and that without it, they won't have a labor pool," Singleton said. "This decision says that that housing will have to be habitable."

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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