By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009
DECATUR, Ill. -- Gloria Garcia Barragan, 52, boarded a plane for the first time this summer to travel from her home in southern Mexico to Decatur. She came to this industrial central Illinois town to testify in the wrongful death lawsuit concerning her son, who died in 2007 at age 26 of burns from an accident at the BioProducts plant of Archer Daniels Midland.
Every week, Garcia's son, Francisco Garcia Moreno, sent money to his family. He came to the United States as a teenager and was earning about $16.50 an hour working for a contractor at the ADM plant, which makes lysine and other additives. Besides helping Garcia and his father, Antonio Garcia Valencia, an unemployed field worker with health problems, the funds helped support Francisco's five adult siblings in a town near Guadalajara.
ADM, whose global headquarters are in Decatur, offered the family $500,000 to settle. Attorney Donald Shapiro thought the family deserved more.
Shapiro knew declining ADM's offer and going to a jury trial would be a gamble, especially given anti-immigrant sentiment apparent in the highly charged national debate. Like many Midwestern cities and towns, Decatur has experienced an influx of immigrant workers in the past decade. Latinos make up only about 2 percent of Decatur's 75,000 population, but their growing presence is noticeable. Long-time residents welcome the new Mexican restaurants, but many resent the competition for jobs in a town with 12.4 percent unemployment, up from 8.3 percent a year ago.
He "wants to come up here and get killed, that's one more job for an American," said retired locomotive engineer Kenny Smith, noting that he has friends who get up at 3 a.m. to drive hundreds of miles to Chicago or Indianapolis in search of work.
The Garcias decided to put their faith in a local jury, declining Archer Daniel's $500,000 and a later offer of $1 million.
On Sept. 11, a jury awarded the family $6.7 million, among the largest such judgments in state history for a childless man.
Shapiro said the award shows the jurors -- 11 white, one black -- "really tried to treat this family just like any other family that had lost a son."
"I think they cut across all the lines of prejudice, both prejudice against people who are Mexican and who are poor," he said.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said anti-immigrant feelings are always a concern with juries, but he said people typically sympathize with an individual even if they have negative feelings toward immigrants as a whole.
"That's human nature," he said.
Decatur is known as a proud union town that has had more than its share of hard knocks. In 1999, Jesse L. Jackson led high-profile protests over the expulsion of seven African American students for fighting at a high school football game.
Many residents are still dealing with the effects of bitter labor conflicts in the 1990s involving Bridgestone/Firestone, Caterpillar and the A.E. Staley Manufacturing's starch and corn syrup plant. More than 1,500 people were laid off when the Bridgestone-Firestone tire plant closed in 2001, blamed for the recall of millions of tires prone to dangerously unraveling.
Archer Daniels employs 4,000 people in Decatur, a stable economic presence even as it was plagued by price-fixing and workplace-accident scandals in the 1990s. Some say the acronym stands for "Another Dead Man."
In 2007, Garcia was suspended 15 feet in the air when a machine malfunctioned and blasted him with steam and hot caustic liquid. He tumbled to the ground and co-workers dragged him into a safety shower; nearly 90 percent of his body was covered in third-degree burns and his skin was sloughing off. He died at a hospital 32 hours later, on March 24, 2007.
Archer Daniels spokesman Roman Blahoski said that injury rates have been significantly reduced at the company's facilities in Decatur and globally in recent years, and that Garcia's is the only death at the BioProducts plant.
"The safety of employees and contractors who work at our facilities is always a priority at ADM," said Blahoski. "All of us at ADM were deeply saddened by Francisco Garcia's death. . . . We admitted liability. The issue at trial was compensation for the family. We are reviewing the court's decision and considering next steps."
Nationally, Latino immigrant workers are significantly more likely than members of other races to die or be seriously injured on the job. A National Council of La Raza report released in September notes that Latinos have had the highest workplace death rate of any ethnicity for the past 15 years. In 2007, 937 Latinos, "the majority of them immigrants," died of occupational injuries, a rate of 4.6 per 100,000. The rate was 3.9 per 100,000 for white workers and 3.8 for black workers.
Officials say the injury-death rates are so high because Latinos tend to work in dangerous professions such as construction, meatpacking and forestry.
Saenz said multimillion-dollar verdicts for immigrant workers killed on the job are rare. Many immigrant families avoid taking legal action because of the language barrier and unfamiliarity with the system. Garcia's estate could also sue Archer Daniels for an amount much higher than workers' compensation law would have allowed because he was employed by a contractor, not ADM -- hence ADM was not subject to workers' compensation limits.
"There's a great amount of myth about the limitations on rights of people who are not citizens; legal and undocumented immigrants often make an assumption they are not entitled to the same rights, when in this case they are," said Saenz.
At the Sundown Lounge, Archer Daniels millwright Al Kramer ticked off the circumstances of eight people killed since 1995 at the company's Decatur facilities. They include two killed in a fire at a wet corn mill in 2008 and two, like Garcia, by steam explosions in 2002 and 1995.
"What about them?" said Kramer. "[Garcia] was an illegal immigrant in the first place. I'd like to see United States citizens have jobs before immigrants."
Blahoski said contractor ECF, which hired Garcia, was required to verify his legal status. ECF did not return calls for comment.
"Six million for a dead man is fair, but sending the money to Mexico -- I don't agree with that," said a locomotive engineer in a cowboy hat and denim jacket who declined to give his name.
But Decatur Federation of Labor President Bill Francisco, 35, said the judgment sends a message to firms that workers' rights should be respected regardless of race, nationality or citizenship status.
"They come to chase the American dream, and for Francisco Garcia it was demolished all in a day's work," he said. "The exploitation of the immigrant worker is something that needs to cease. It seems the country is taking advantage of them."