The owner and the project manager of a California construction company will spend two years in prison for what Cal/OSHA called the “preventable death” of a day laborer who was buried alive in 2012 when a concrete retaining wall collapsed on top of him.
A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge sentenced Richard Liu, owner of U.S. Sino Investment in Fremont, and Project Manager Dan Luo to prison time for involuntary manslaughter in the death of 36-year-old Raul Zapata three days after a building inspector issued a stop-work notice for the job site because of a lack of shoring on the 12-foot-high excavation.
Cal/OSHA investigators said the victim and his co-workers were not wearing head protection at the time of the accident. The officials also determined that “no competent person for excavation” was supervising the job site.
It is unusual for a contractor to get jail time for a jobsite accident, even one that proves fatal.
Prosecutor Bud Porter told The San Jose Mercury News the last time a California jury convicted a business owner or manager of involuntary manslaughter for a workplace accident was in 1982 after two Burbank water reclamation workers without gas masks died after inhaling fumes. And Dave Cogdill, executive director of the California Building Industry Association, told the newspaper he has never heard of a jail sentence for a fatal construction accident.
The prison sentence could send a message to California contractors who allegedly cut corners when it comes to worker safety — or the safety of bystanders. It came as prosecutors in Alameda County, CA, where U.S. Sino Investment is located, consider whether to prosecute a builder or property owner for the unrelated deaths of six students who fell when the balcony of a Berkeley apartment building collapsed in June.
California isn’t the only state to prosecute contractors for jobsite deaths. In Pennsylvania, an excavator operator faces up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with a 2013 demolition accident that killed six people and injured 12.