Construction bosses jailed in rare case after worker crushed in California

Two construction company bosses in California – one a Chinese citizen – have been sent to prison over the death of a worker in a rare application of manslaughter law in the state.

Company owner and chief executive Richard Liu, 53, and his project manager Dan Luo, 37, were each sentenced on Friday, 31 July to two years in prison for the involuntary manslaughter of worker Raul Zapata in 2012.

In a tragedy labelled by the prosecutor as "homicide", Zapata was killed by collapsing dirt walls at the site of an exclusive home under construction in Milpitas, near San Jose in the San Francisco Bay area.

Zapata, a 39-year-old father of three, was only in his second week working on the hillside project being undertaken by Richard Liu’s contracting business, called US-Sino Investment Inc..

The death of Raul Zapata was no accident. This was a homicide in the workplace– Prosecutor Bud Porter

He was working in a trench when unsupported dirt walls that had been weakened by torrential rain collapsed, burying him under thousands of pounds of dirt and rock.

Just three days earlier, after the downpour, a city building inspector gave a stop-work notice to project manager Dan Luo because of the cave-in danger, but the company ignored the order.

"The death of Raul Zapata was no accident. This was a homicide in the workplace," said prosecutor Bud Porter of the Santa Clara county District Attorney’s office.

"By cutting corners on worker safety, the defendants gambled with the lives of other human beings," Porter said when the pair were convicted in May this year after a trial lasting two and a half months. "Their reckless gamble caused the needless death of Mr. Zapata."

After sentencing on Friday the men were taken into custody immediately.

Porter had argued that they were a flight risk, with Dan Luo being a Chinese citizen and Richard Liu having extensive ties to China, according to newspaper San Jose Mercury News.

The prison sentences are considered rare in workplace death cases in California, where fines are typically imposed.

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

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