Some of the most difficult cases we handle as personal injury lawyers involve fatal workplace injuries, especially when they claim the life of someone who was just starting out in life. Regina Elsea, a young worker crushed to death by robotic machinery at the AJIN plant in Cusseta, Alabama, is one of these cases. It’s a highly tragic case because it would not have happened had her employer complied with basic workplace safety regulations to spare workers from injury and death.
Poor Safety Practices Killed Regina Elsea
AJIN USA is a Korean manufacturer that supplies auto parts to Hyundai and Kia. It has production facilities in Cusseta, Alabama, South Korea, Vietnam, and China. In June 2016, Ms. Elsea and three of her AJIN coworkers were sent to the robotics station to clear a sensor and restart the plant’s assembly line after it had stopped, halting production. Ms. Elsea, and other workers, were inside the operations zone when the machine abruptly restarted and crushed her. She was transported to a local hospital and then flown to UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, where she died from her injuries.
“Regina was just 20 years old when her life was cut short. Her wedding day was two weeks away when this senseless tragedy occurred,” said Beasley Allen lawyer Kendall Dunson, who represents Regina’s mother, Angel Ogle.
“Government regulators fined AJIN $1.3 million for the safety violations, but Regina’s death represents the true cost of the company’s reckless disregard for safety,” Kendal said. “Her life was just getting started. Now there is a permanent, painful void among her family, friends, and community.”
Dozens of Willful Safety Violations
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials investigated the AJIN plant after Ms. Elsea’s death and found 51 safety violations. The agency said all but three of those violations were deemed willful, indicating a purposeful disregard or lack of concern for worker safety.
OSHA cited AJIN for “lockout” or “tagout” violations. When correctly followed, lockout/tagout procedures ensure machines are safely shut off so workers can clean, maintain, or repair them without the risk of a sudden intentional or unintentional start-up.
According to OSHA, AJIN supervisors in Alabama failed to enforce lockout/tagout procedures effectively. OSHA officials observed AJIN supervisors entering the machinery at least twice without following proper safety procedures.
AJIN: A Severe Violator
OSHA also placed AJIN in its “Severe Violator Enforcement Program.” The program focuses on employers that endanger workers by repeatedly refusing to obey federal safety regulations. Under the program, OSHA puts more resources into overseeing the violator. The program also allows the agency to inspect any of the employer’s facilities if it believes the employer continues disregarding regulations.
Safety issues among Hyundai and Kia’s U.S. suppliers have long been a concern for federal labor officials. Just months before Ms. Elsea’s fatal on-the-job incident, Dr. David Michaels, the then assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, met with Hyundai and Kia executives in South Korea to express concerns about the hazardous working conditions at their suppliers’ facilities. Dr. Michaels reported that OSHA found the automakers’ production targets were creating dangerous conditions at suppliers’ factories and endangering workers.
Months later, after Ms. Elsea’s death, Dr. Michaels said that AJIN appeared to have “cut corners on safety” to reduce costs in meeting production targets set by Hyundai and Kia.
AJIN Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charge
The U.S. Department of Labor also brought AJIN to court on criminal charges over this case, and the company ultimately pleaded guilty to intentionally causing Ms. Elsea’s death. In September 2020, an Alabama federal court ordered AJIN to pay a $500,000 criminal fine plus $1 million in restitution to Ms. Elsea’s family.
“Workers like Ms. Elsea just want to put in a good day’s work and go home to their families at the end of the day. Every company has a legal obligation to ensure its workers get to do that,” Kendall said. “Unfortunately, companies like AJIN value profits more than the safety and well-being of their employees, and the results are devastating.”
Regina Elsea’s family and Beasley Allen hope this lawsuit will hold AJIN accountable. Maybe the company will finally take safety seriously, and perhaps these devastating incidents will become a thing of the past.