Oklahoma Judge Paves Way for Trial in Cintas Wrongful Death

November 17, 2009

A federal judge has denied a request by Cintas Corp. for summary judgment in a 2007 wrongful death lawsuit in Tulsa, Okla., a ruling that paves the way for a jury to hear the case against the nation’s largest uniform supplier next year.

U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan wrote in a 31-page opinion that there is “conflicting evidence” whether Cintas managers knew workers in company laundries were breaking safety rules to save time, but did nothing to stop them.

Eagan wrote that videotape evidence taken from the Tulsa plant “shows employees routinely disregarding Cintas’ safety procedures.”

Amalia Diaz Torres is suing Cincinnati-based Cintas, claiming the company’s plant managers knew about – and even encouraged – the dangerous working practices that led to the death of her husband, Eleazar Torres-Gomez, in 2007.

Cintas has denied those allegations, saying it never puts profits over worker safety.

A trial is scheduled for April 19 in Tulsa.

Even though she sided with Torres in the opinion on Friday, Judge Eagan cautioned her legal team that it still “must demonstrate that Cintas knew with substantial certainty that Torres-Gomez could be injured, and it is not enough to show that Cintas acted negligently.”

Frank Frasier, an attorney for Torres in Tulsa, said Monday he was looking forward to presenting the case to a jury.

Cintas, which supplies and launders uniforms for restaurant and hotel employees and other workers, employs more than 34,000 people. It posted sales of nearly $4 billion in fiscal 2008.

On March 6, 2007, Torres-Gomez, a seven-year Cintas employee, climbed onto a slow-moving conveyor to clear a jam of wet laundry, instead of shutting off the machinery as he was supposed to do.

He jumped up and down on the clump and fell into the 300-degree dryer. Twenty minutes later, another employee heard his burned body banging around in the dryer and made the grisly discovery.

Torres’ suit claims her husband and his co-workers were encouraged by Cintas managers to climb onto the conveyors to dislodge clumps of uniforms to keep up with production.

Last year, an Associated Press investigation found that in the year and a half after the accident in Tulsa, at least eight Cintas plants in six states had been cited by OSHA and state authorities for hazards similar to those that led to Torres-Gomez’s death.

In December, the company agreed to pay almost $3 million in penalties to resolve federal occupational safety violations in six cases, including the Tulsa death.

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