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A farm owner has been charged with involuntary manslaughter after his worker was killed servicing an unsafe 16,000-pound spinach harvester.

The Santa Clara County Grand Jury returned an indictment against a Watsonville-based company, Willoughby Farms, and its owner, for causing the death of Carlos Jimenez Cruz. At approximately 4:30 a.m. on October 15, 2020, the 32-year-old victim was strangled to death when the hood on his clothing was caught in a spinning shaft on the machine.

David Willoughby, 50, the president of Willoughby Farms, Inc. was arraigned this week on felony charges. The corporation, along with an affiliated LLC, will be also be arraigned on the felony charges. The allegations include failing to provide adequate training to employees and failing to cover the dangerous parts of the machine, causing the death of Mr. Cruz. The maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter is four years in prison. Willoughby Farms faces millions of dollars in fines for three related Labor Code violations.

According to Cal/OSHA records, at 5:30 a.m. on October 15, 2020, Cruz was greasing the spinach harvesting machine with a grease gun for routine maintenance. There were no direct witnesses to the accident however the employee was last observed on the ground greasing the machine by a coworker who left the area to retrieve a water tank. When the coworker returned to the area, he found the employee on the platform, not moving, with his hoodie caught around the shaft of the machine. The coworker climbed up the ladder and pulled the cord to stop machine. Emergency services were called, and the employee pronounced dead at the scene.

Cal/OSHA issued 7 citations, 5 of which were deemed “Serious.” Records reflect the employer contested all seven. Case status remains open.

“Employers have a basic responsibility to make sure their workers are safe,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said. “It is a tragedy and a crime when a person doing their job is injured or killed because an employer fails to pay attention to safety.”

Willoughby Farms has been around for generations growing spinach and other crops.

This is the second time that a Santa Clara County Grand Jury has indicted an employer for a workplace death. In 2015, a jury convicted US Sino Investment owner Richard Liu and Project Manager Dan Luo of involuntary manslaughter when an unsupported 12-foot trench collapsed and crushed a worker 36 year old day laborer, Raul Zapata.

The defendants were sentenced to two years in prison. In total, US Sino Investment, was penalized $168,175 in citations. Their convictions and sentencing capped an extremely rare jury trial in such workplace deaths, which are typically settled either through administrative fines.

This is certainly the first instance of its kind I’ve ever heard of,said Dave Cogbill, executive director of the California Building Industry Association.