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‘Reckless Gamble’ Leads to Jail Time

Monday, August 10, 2015

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Choosing to defy a "stop work" order on a Milpitas, CA, job site has led to prison sentences for two California construction company agents, according to authorities.

Richard Liu, 53, the owner and CEO of U.S. Sino Investment Inc., and project manager Dan Luo, 37, will each spend two years behind bars in connection with the 2012 cave-in death of Raul Zapata, 39, of Zacatecas, Mexico.

jail
© iStock.com / Jultae

The construction company owner and manager will serve two years in jail after being convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of worker Raul Zapata.

Convicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter in May, the pair was sentenced July 31 to serve two years each in prison, the Santa Clara County District Attorney announced Monday (Aug. 3). The sentencing followed a two-month-long jury trial.

‘Homicide in the Workplace’

“The death of Raul Zapata was no accident,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter said in a statement.

“This was a homicide in the workplace. Justice has been served today because these defendants are criminally responsible for the death of another human being.”

During the sentencing hearing, Porter argued for the maximum penalty of four years in jail, while the defense attorneys asked for probation and community service for the men, according to a local newspaper.

The two-year sentence was based on a recommendation made by the county’s Probation Department, Porter told the Gilroy Patch.

Ignored ‘Stop Work’ Order

Zapata perished Jan. 28, 2012, three days after building inspectors in Milpitas ordered the company to stop construction of a mansion because of hazards at the job site, authorities said.

The contractor ignored the stop-work order, which was posted at the site, until the wall of a rain-soaked 12-foot-deep retaining barrier caved in and crushed Zapata, a married father of three children.

It had been Zapata’s second week working on the $700,000 hillside project. He had been involved in masonry and carpentry work at the residence, according to the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Zapata was pronounced dead at the scene; however, his body was not recovered for several days due to the instability of the soil and risk of future collapse.

OSHA Case

In June, Cal-OSHA hit the company with $168,175 in fines for 14 safety violations—two willful, three serious and nine other-than-serious. The case against the now-defunct company is still listed as open, per OSHA’s database.

soil
© iStock.com / theevening

Zapata was crushed to death when several thousand pounds of dirt and rock fell on him.

According to Cal-OSHA, the excavation wall that gave way had no soil support system installed as required by the agency’s trenching and excavation regulations. 

Further, California law also requires an annual or project-specific permit for any work that involves a trench or excavation wall exceeding five feet in depth into which workers may be lowered. The company did not obtain such a permit, the agency alleged.

In a statement provided at the time of the citations, Cal-OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said, “We think this case is particularly appropriate for criminal referral based on the egregious facts leading to the worker’s death.”

‘Rare Trial’

Prosecutors described the case as a “rare trial aimed at holding an employer criminally responsible for the death of an employee on the job.”  

“By cutting corners on worker safety, the defendants gambled with the lives of other human beings,” Porter commented in May.

“Their reckless gamble caused the needless death of Mr. Zapata.”

Unqualified to Manage

During the trial, prosecutors said Luo, who had no previous experience in construction, had been unqualified to manage the project, according to reports.

“Luo was not licensed and not qualified to be in charge,” Porter told Mercury News.

Luo’s attorney Marlene Thomason told the Gilroy Patch that her client had a degree in biochemistry and an advanced degree in computer science and confirmed that did not have a background in construction.

She had recommended that Luo serve three years of community service during the sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors said that Liu, who was in China at the time of the incident, was involved in the day-to-day decisions of the company.

Both men were indicted in July 2012. Liu was arrested in November 2012 upon his return to the United States.

Reports said the Fremont-based company had completed several million-dollar projects prior to the accident and were likely driven by pressure to stay on schedule.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Construction; Criminal acts; Ethics; Fatalities; Health and safety; Residential Construction

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