A settlement has been reached by a former farm worker and farm machinery operator in a lawsuit filed against three companies. The worker’s left arm was badly mangled in a machine that processed harvested watermelons. Robert Ramirez Lopez, 57, had only been on the job for three days in September 2009 when the incident happened. He was tapping a watermelon that had become stuck in the machine when his arm was crushed in the dumping mechanism.
Lopez was employed by a company other than the company that owned the machine. Had Lopez been employed by the company that owned the machine, it would have become a worker’s compensation claim. Under the state worker’s compensation law, Lopez’s benefit would have been limited to $135,000. Lopez had only worked sporadically during the three years before the accident, earning just $8,000. He was hired by a farm labor contractor to work at a produce cooling facility.
Lopez was working for VMJ Professional Services (VMJ), a farm labor contractor, at a facility owned by organic grower Double D Farms at a location near Coalinga. The machine that Lopez was working on when he was injured was “designed, manufactured and maintained” by TMJMB Holdings, formerly known as Timco Worldwide. The case went to mediation. Two weeks before the trial was scheduled to start, the case was settled for $1,000,000. Under the settlement agreement, TMJMB will pay $905,000 of the total settlement, VMJ Professional Services $90,000 and Double D Farms $5,000.
Lopez began working for VMJ on Sept. 24, 2009, at Double D’s produce cooling facility. He was working around a machine that was part of the watermelon harvesting process. During the automated process, watermelons routinely became lodged or “stuck” in the conveyor belt area after having been dumped by the machine. Lopez estimated it happened about 50 times a day.
Each time, Lopez would tap the melon with his hand to dislodge it. On his third day on the job, at the same time he tapped the melon, a co-worker activated a “dumper” on the machine. Lopez’s left arm was crushed when it was pulled into the machine. Lopez now has limited use of his left arm, which was repaired in surgery, but likely can never again do manual labor. He has only an 11th-grade education. Butch Wagner, a lawyer with in Fresno, represented Lopez and did a good job for him in this case.
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