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Auto-Parts Maker Joon Pleads Guilty to U.S. Charge in Death Case

Sept. 3, 2020, 5:13 PM

Auto-parts manufacturer Joon LLC, also known as Ajin USA, has pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge that the company willfully allowed employees to ignore OSHA safety rules leading to the death of a worker in 2016.

Joon agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and $1 million to the survivors of the worker as part of a plea agreement filed Wednesday at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama at Opelika. The company also committed itself to make improvements to its safety program and accept additional inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The worker, Regina Elsea, was a machinery operator at the metal stamping plant in Cusseta, Ala. On June 18, 2016, she walked into an enclosure, called a cell, containing several robots to troubleshoot a piece of machinery that had malfunctioned.

While inside the robotic cell, one of the robots energized. Elsea was struck by a robotic arm, pinning her against another machine. Co-workers freed Elsea, however she died a day later in a hospital.

In the plea agreement, Joon acknowledged that company officials were aware employees weren’t following the proper procedures for deactivating machinery before servicing or repairing equipment known as “lockout/tagout.”

In a written statement, Ajin USA said, “We have fully cooperated with the U.S. Department of Justice in this matter and will continue to make our facility as safe a workplace as possible for our valued team members.”

Email, Video Evidence

As evidence of the issues, the plea agreement quotes three emails warning of the problems from a safety manager and a human resources manager.

Investigators also uncovered video of workers checking robots’ electronics without following shutdown procedures, the plea agreement said.

Among the safety program improvements Joon promised to make were appointing a safety compliance manager; hiring an outside auditor, with government approval, to monitor the safety program; review and update machinery maintenance safety procedures; and train workers on correct methods for shutting down machinery for maintenance.

Joon will have to provide OSHA copies of the safety audits and allow OSHA to inspect the factory if the audits reveal safety issues.

The auto-parts company’s issues with the federal government aren’t over. Joon continues to contest a proposed $2.5 million penalty OSHA is seeking for 23 alleged violations found during an inspection of the plant that followed the accident, according to OSHA enforcement records.

Representing Joon was William Espy of Melton, Espy & Williams P.C. in Montgomery, Ala.

Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama Stephanie Billingslea and Justice Department trial attorney Erica Pencak represented the government.

The case is USA v. Joon LLC, M.D. Ala., No. 20-0093, 9/2/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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