RED WING (AP) -- Dairy Farmers of America, the country's largest dairy cooperative, admitted guilt in the 1995 death of a worker who fell into a cheese grinder.
The co-op pleaded guilty Friday in Goodhue County District Court to willful violation of employer duty.
Several weeks earlier, Dairy Farmers settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the widow of Jeffrey Steffenhagen. Normally, such claims are dismissed because state workers compensation law strictly bars lawsuits against employers -- unless they intentionally kill or injure a worker.
Steffenhagen, a 33-year-old father of three, died in October 1995 when he fell into a running grinder at the Zumbrota cheese plant in southeastern Minnesota run by Mid-America Dairymen, which has since merged into Kansas City, Mo.-based Dairy Farmers of America.
An investigation by the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the grinder's opening wasn't properly guarded. Workers, managers and safety experts had warned the company for seven years that the grinder was potentially deadly.
OSHA cited the firm for ''willful'' disregard of a critical safety standard, and the company agreed to pay a $63,000 fine. In 1998, Dairy Farmers was charged in Goodhue County on charges of third-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter and willful violation of employer duty.
In the plea agreement, the company admitted to a gross misdemeanor, accepting that it willfully failed to keep its Zumbrota plant free of recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious injury. The offense carries a maximum penalty of a $20,000 fine and six months in jail.
Dairy Farmers agreed to pay a fine of $3,000 and reimburse the prosecution for its $13,674 in costs. The company's office was closed Saturday, and a telephone message was not immediately returned.
Goodhue County Attorney Stephen Betcher acknowledged that a $3,000 fine is not significant for a business the size of Dairy Farmers, which has more than $7 billion in annual revenue. But the guilty plea is a blight on the firm's image and perhaps it will spur lawmakers to increase fines for corporate criminal acts, he said.
In Minnesota, workplace accidents are covered by workers compensation, whether they're caused primarily by employers or employees.
Survivors can pursue wrongful death claims, which can net millions of dollars in punitive damages, only if an employer's intentional act leads to death or injury -- an extremely stringent legal standard. Sharon Steffenhagen, Jeff Steffenhagen's widow, claimed in her lawsuit that the cheese company created a situation in which someone would almost certainly die.
Goodhue County Judge Robert R. King dismissed her claim in early 1999, saying evidence supported only gross negligence. The case went before an appeals court last fall. Dairy Farmers settled the case in November for an undisclosed amount of money.
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