Auto parts supplier Ajin USA pleaded guilty Monday, Nov. 9, in a federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, to safety failures that led to the death of Regina Elsea, a 20-year-old worker in the company’s Cusseta, Alabama, plant.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Michael Doyle sentenced AJIN to pay a $500,000 fine for violating a critical Occupational Safety and Health rule requiring employers to ensure that industrial machinery can’t power on unexpectedly while being maintained, serviced, or cleaned.

That rule, known as “lockout/tagout,” is what Ajin supervisors failed to observe when Ms. Elsea entered an enclosure containing several robots and other pieces of machinery to troubleshoot a sensor fault. Because Ajin failed to comply with lockout/tagout procedures, a robotic arm activated with Ms. Elsea and three others inside the “cell.” The machine struck and killed the young worker, who was just starting her adult life and was to be married in a few weeks.

In addition to the criminal penalty, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Michael Doyle ordered Ajin to pay Ms. Elsea’s estate $1 million in restitution.

The judge also sentenced the company to three years of probation, during which it must adhere to a safety compliance plan, which will be overseen by a third-party auditor. The safety compliance plan will involve a full review of Ajin’s lockout/tagout procedures, weekly inspections to ensure compliance, and creation of a venue for employees to report any safety concerns about the facility anonymously.

Ms. Elsea’s family seeks to hold Ajin and related companies liable for the fatal injury as well. They chose Beasley Allen to represent them in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of Chambers County, Alabama, in January 2017.  Kendall Dunson, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, will lead the litigation team in their case.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Ajin knew lockout/tagout procedures were required and had developed them, but for a period of at least two years supervisors did not effectively enforce them. As a result, it was just a matter of time before a worker was seriously injured or killed on the job.

According to the DOJ, 15 minutes before Elsea’s fatal injury on June 18, 2016, workers entered the cells to troubleshoot problems with the machinery at least five times and in the presence of supervisors who took no action to stop or reprimand them.

In other instances, Ajin supervisors themselves entered cells without following the company’s lockout/tagout procedures to de-energize the machinery, the DOJ said.

“Regina’s tragic death was preventable. OSH Act standards exist to protect American workers, but employers must actually implement them,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“When safety policies exist only on paper, tragedies like this occur. Ajin knew its supervisors and managers were turning a blind eye to the company’s safety procedures,” Brightbill added.

Loren Sweatt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, called Ajin’s failure to observe fundamental safety rules “tragic.”

“Well-known safety procedures were repeatedly ignored that could have prevented this tragedy.  While nothing can ever replace the loss of life, the court has sent a clear message that such disregard for worker safety is unacceptable,” she said.

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