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Court of Appeals Affirms Convictions, Penalties in Sewer Tank Deaths

(Phoenix, Ariz. -- April 9, 2010) Attorney General Terry Goddard today announced that the Arizona Court of Appeals has affirmed the guilty verdicts and penalties against Far West Water & Sewer of Yuma in a case stemming from the deaths of two Yuma sewer workers in 2001.

In a 2005 trial, a Yuma County jury convicted Far West Water & Sewer of five felonies: negligent homicide, causing the death of an employee by knowing violation of a safety standard, aggravated assault and two counts of endangerment.  A Far West employee, James Gamble, and an attempted rescuer, Gary Lanser, died in the incident.  Far West employee Nathan Garrett, who also tried to rescue Gamble, suffered severe lung damage.  Gamble and the others collapsed in a sewer tank near Mesa del Sol Golf Course in Yuma on Oct. 24, 2001, when they were overcome by sewage gas.  

In its appeal, Far West argued that the State's criminal prosecution "went beyond the statutory scheme for liability of a corporation" and that the case "at most gives rise to civil liability, but not criminal liability." The Court of Appeals soundly rejected that contention, stating, "We conclude...that its conduct went far beyond ordinary civil negligence or even gross negligence and crossed the line into criminal conduct."     

In its opinion, the Court stated that the evidence showed that Far West "did not provide its employees with required training” and had “made no attempt to even minimally comply with OSHA regulations.”  The Court concluded that Far West’s safety program was “virtually non-existent.”  Its decision also noted that Far West “did not hold safety meetings and had no written safety policies or written records regarding safety training.” The Court added that Far West “did not have necessary rescue equipment available” and “had no capability of rescuing anyone.” 

The Court of Appeals rejected every legal argument Far West offered, specifically confirming that the Yuma County Superior Court’s sentence of a fine of $1,770,000 was not excessive.   

“This tragedy was unnecessary," Goddard said. "Two people died, another still suffers from lung impairment, and other lives were affected by Far West’s disregard for required safety precautions.  We were confident that the jury properly convicted Far West, and we are pleased that the Court of Appeals affirmed each of the five felony convictions.”

 A copy of the Court of Appeals decision is attached.

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