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Nearly six years after a violent van crash killed four young Fresno-area members of the California Conservation Corps, the agency has been found responsible for “serious and willful misconduct” by failing to heed its own safety protocols leading up to the collision.

The Fresno Bee reported on a ruling by workers’ compensation judge in Fresno, that stems from the fatal wreck on Feb. 2, 2016, when a van carrying corps members to a job site rolled through a stop sign near Reedley and into the path of an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer going at least 50 mph.

It was the worst day in the 45-year history of the conservation corps, which puts young adults to work on environmental projects throughout the state. Dead at the scene were Rhonda Shackelford, 20, and Justin Van Meter, 21, of Clovis; and Serena Guadarrama, 18, of Fresno. Ronnie Cruz, 19, of Fresno, suffered catastrophic brain and spinal injuries but lingered more than three years in a near-vegetative state before dying in July 2019. All were recent recruits, two of them so new to the corps that they had yet to receive their first paycheck.

The tragedy spawned a flurry of lawsuits and workers’ compensation claims that have plodded on for years, some still unresolved. The “serious and willful” ruling by Judge Geoffrey H. Sims of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board in Fresno followed two days of hearings this year.

The van driver, Nathan Finnell, who escaped with moderate injuries, was 20 at the time of the crash and had recently been promoted to a supervisory position. As detailed in an investigative report by the news organization FairWarning, corps members had complained about Finnell driving recklessly and clowning around behind the wheel, including on the morning of the wreck, when a member told supervisors that Finnell, the day before, drove off while he was closing the van door, causing injury to his shoulder.

An accident investigation by the California Highway Patrol found that 11 of 15 safety belts in the van were inoperative or unavailable because the belts and clasps had slipped through cracks in the seats and were behind them on the floor.

In his ruling, Judge Sims cited Finnell’s unsafe driving, and the agency’s failure to enforce its own safety rules, which require that vehicles pass a visual inspection of tires, lights, seatbelts and other components before being driven. The policy states that if deficiencies are found, the vehicle is to be placed out of service until repairs are made. “Clearly, had Employer followed its own protocols,” it “would have triggered the substitution of another vehicle,” the WCJ wrote. “Sadly, it did not.”

The case before Judge Sims highlighted an oddity, some would say an injustice, in California workers’ compensation law. When a worker killed on the job has no dependents, death benefits that would otherwise go to family members instead are claimed by the state. The Death Without Dependents Unit, a sub-agency within the California Department of Industrial Relations, puts the money in a trust fund for workers with preexisting disabilities who are later injured on the job.

As a result, prior to Sims’ ruling, $150,000 in death benefits for Guadarrama and Van Meter were claimed by the state. Rhonda Shackelford’s parents received $45,000 in benefits based on evidence they were partly dependent on their daughter’s help with rent and other bills.

Additional death benefits triggered by a ‘’serious and willful’’ ruling do go to families, even if they weren’t dependents of the deceased workers. Following Sims’ ruling last month the CCC agreed not to file an appeal in return for a 10% discount on the additional benefit owed the families. As a result, survivors of Guadarrama and VanMeter families will get $67,500 apiece, and the Shackelfords $22,050.

Ronnie Cruz received more than $2.8 million in workers’ compensation, nearly all of it to reimburse medical providers during the three-plus years he remained alive. As a result, with the ‘’serious and willful’’ finding $1,280,174 in additional benefits will go to his estate, less attorney’s fees.