A once massive criminal case charging a conspiracy to deny workers compensation benefits to employees of a packaging plant in Salinas, Calif., ended Thursday on a decidedly minor note when two former managers were sentenced to 30 days in jail.
At that, Douglas Tateoka and David Polk, ex-managers with the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., who had faced 109 felony counts of insurance fraud, will be able to avoid jail time by participating in a sheriff’s department work program. Tateoka and Polk, who entered no contest pleas in March to three misdemeanors and four misdemeanors, respectively, were also ordered to pay $4,293.24 in restitution to workers for out-of-pocket medical expenses.
The case brought in 2007 by the Monterey County District Attorney had accused the men of discouraging employees from seeking workers compensation and concealing job-related injuries. Prosecutors said Smurfit-Stone’s policy of giving bonuses to managers and employees for maintaining a clean safety record motivated the managers to hide injuries.
Experts say such programs, in wide use by many companies, can increase safety awareness, but often lead supervisors and workers to conceal injuries to remain eligible for awards. Saying job-related injuries are vastly underreported, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration last fall announced a crackdown on companies that failed to record injuries.
Lawyers for Tateoka and Polk, who had assailed the case as an example of overzealous prosecution, said the light sentence showed the court agreed. “I think it really telegraphed the judge’s opinion of the case,” said Polk’s lawyer Mike Lawrence.
Prosecutors had recommended jail sentences of 120 days. Ed Hazel, managing deputy District Attorney, declined comment on the sentence.
Lawrence said the men agreed to enter pleas because, after two and a half years without completing the preliminary hearing, they could not afford to go to trial. “If we had continued on, our guys would have been ruined,” he said.
Smurfit-Stone, a global packaging giant, has boasted of its industry-leading safety record. It’s uncertain what kind of safety incentive programs are in use at its other plants. Company officials did not respond to written questions.
Charges remain pending against two medical providers, physician’s assistant Eugene Guzman Jr., and chiropractor Steven Davis.Related: Squishy Stats Cloud Job Safety Advance