Worker's Family Awarded $17 Million by Texas Jury

A jury in the 353rd District Court in Austin, Tex., awarded $17 million to the family of Faye Martinez, who was trapped by milk crates on a conveyor belt and slowly suffocated while employees watched.

According to Gary Rodriguez, an attorney for the family, Martinez was working in a new area at the Milk Products LP facility in east Austin, Tex., and was unfamiliar with and untrained in the use of the equipment when the incident occurred on Jan. 23, 2003. When another employee went on break, Martinez was left to supervise milk crates as they moved from one conveyor belt to another. When the machinery stopped, Martinez allegedly tried to move a crate she thought was going to jam the line. When she moved the crate, which had triggered a device that stopped the conveyor, the line started up again and a stack of six crates was pushed into Martinez' back. She became trapped face first into a wall.

The employee who was on break returned and found Martinez trapped against the wall but did not know how to turn the machinery off and summoned a supervisor. Rodriguez claimed the supervisor knew where to find the switch to turn off the machinery, but refused to do so. "The supervisor knew how to turn off the machine but he wouldn't do it and went looking for maintenance because he said it was their job to handle, and he didn't want to hurt the machinery," said Rodriguez. He added that no one called 911 for at least 20 minutes after employees realized Martinez was trapped.

It took jurors a day to reach their decision, which awarded Martinez' husband $10 million in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages.

"Ten to 15 employees showed up, and none of them knew how to turn it off, so they were just sitting there watching her die of suffocation," Rodriguez told the Austin American-Statesman.

Management at Milk Products "is still very saddened by the loss of Faye Martinez," claiming "they really did consider [her] to be a part of their family," said company attorney Rick Reyna.

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