ABC Polymer Industries LLC pleaded guilty in federal court in Alabama Jan. 10 to willfully violating safety regulations in a 2017 incident that saw an employee pulled into an extrusion line and killed.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which prosecuted the case for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called the death of Catalina Estillado "entirely preventable" and said in a statement that the company should have known that routine practices in its Helena, Ala. factory put employees at risk.
"This tragic loss of life could have been avoided by following federal safety standards," said Prim F. Escalona, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, in a statement.
DOJ said Estillado was pulled into a cluster of unguarded moving rollers and said the company "was aware that its employees routinely raised the guard on its machines to cut tangled plastic off the rollers."
"ABC Polymer also trained its employees to cut tangled plastic off the rollers while the rollers were in operation," DOJ said. "ABC Polymer admitted that it knew or should have known that these practices exposed employees to a risk of injuries and death in violation of federal law."
In a plea deal between the government and ABC, the company has agreed to pay a fine of $167,928, along with $242,928 and any unpaid funeral expenses to Estillado's estate. It also agreed to a two-year probation, including compliance with a safety plan, and waiving certain appeal rights.
Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 24 before U.S. District Judge Annemarie Carney Axon, who is not bound by the DOJ's plea recommendation.
The charge, a Class B misdemeanor, carries a maximum sentence of a $500,000 fine or twice the financial gain to the defendant or financial loss to another party, whichever is greater, and restitution to the victim.
DOJ said a misdemeanor is the only federal criminal charge covering such "willful" workplace safety violations.
In a statement, ABC said it wanted to close the "dark chapter" in its history.
"ABC Polymer cares deeply about its employees and about creating a safe work environment and believes every workplace death is a tragedy," the company said. "That is why ABC Polymer has worked tirelessly since Catalina Estillado's death in 2017 to make its manufacturing operations safer by installing new equipment, implementing new policies and procedures, and engaging a third-party safety consultant.
"The United States has recognized ABC Polymer's extensive efforts in its plea agreement," the company said. "ABC Polymer welcomes the opportunity to close this dark chapter in its history and move forward."
At the time of her death, Estillado, who was reportedly 45 years old, had worked at the company about four months.
In August, when the DOJ brought the case, the company said directly it was not guilty of the charges alleged and said it planned to defend itself vigorously.
An attorney for ABC said the company made the decision to plead guilty after thoroughly reviewing the facts and the case law regarding willfulness.
The DOJ charges are not the only court case stemming from the incident.
In June, a judge in Jefferson County Circuit Court in Alabama awarded Estillado's family $3 million in a lawsuit seeking damages.
The company, based in Helena, makes flexible intermediate bulk containers and bags for industrial customers.
The incident was investigated by OSHA, which closed its review in August 2019 with a $155,000 fine against ABC.
"This victim's tragic death was entirely preventable," said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim, in DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "Employers who willfully violate OSHA standards are gambling with their employees' health and lives. We will continue to hold accountable those who fail to follow these critical safety rules."