Company: Temp worker to blame for his fatal burns | WBEZ
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Company: Temporary worker to blame for his fatal burns

Raani Corp., a Bedford Park manufacturer of household and grooming products, denies negligence in a wrongful-death suit filed by survivors of the worker, Carlos Centeno. (Logan Jaffe/WBEZ)

The company that was supervising a Chicago-area temporary worker when he suffered fatal burns in 2011 says the man failed to take “proper precautions” in its factory and calls his conduct “the sole proximate cause of the injuries.”

Raani Corp., a Bedford Park manufacturer of household and grooming products, makes those accusations and denies negligence in a 66-page answer to a wrongful-death suit that survivors of Carlos Centeno, 50, filed in Cook County Circuit Court last year.

Centeno, a Humboldt Park resident scalded over most of his body with a hot citric-acid solution November 17, 2011, died three weeks later in a burn unit of Loyola University Hospital in Maywood. The death triggered inspections by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those inspections led OSHA to fine the company $473,000 last May for 14 alleged violations.

An internal OSHA memo, obtained as part of an investigation by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity and WBEZ, says more than 98 minutes elapsed after the incident before Centeno reached the hospital.

Factory officials refused to call an ambulance as Centeno awaited help, shirtless and screaming, OSHA investigators contended. Instead of calling 911, the company had another temporary worker drive Centeno to an occupational health clinic that was not set up to treat life-threatening burns.

In its court filing, Raani claims Centeno “assumed the risk of any injuries allegedly sustained as a result of his conduct” and “knew or reasonably should have known of the substances that were used in the activities conducted at the places where he worked.”

As Centeno cleaned a 500-gallon tank from which the acid solution erupted, “he knew or reasonably should have known of the possible risks of personal injury,” the Raani filing adds. “By voluntarily undertaking to work with such substances, [Centeno] elected to accept such possible risks.”

The company’s position amounts to “pouring more acid on an open wound,” Stephan D. Blandin, an attorney for Centeno’s survivors, said.

“The family has been trying to get over Carlos’s loss for well over a year now,” Blandin said. “Here is somebody who is pleading to be taken to the emergency room and they’re intentionally denying him care. And they’re blaming him for it now. It’s just reprehensible.”

Raani’s filing also denies the family’s claim that Centeno’s employer was Ron’s Staffing Services Inc., a temporary-staffing firm based in Northbrook that assigned him to the factory. The family’s claim, experts say, is crucial for expanding damages beyond workers’ compensation, a form of insurance that Illinois requires of employers.

“Ron’s Staffing is the employer,” said Leone José Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, a group that advocates for temporary workers. “It has the W-2s. It pays the worker. It is in charge of workers’ comp and all aspects of employment.”

Client companies such as Raani are happy shifting employment responsibility to a staffing agency such as Ron’s until a worker is injured, Bicchieri said. “Now, suddenly, the client company says it is the direct employer. This is just a game of ping-pong.”

H. Patrick Morris, Raani’s attorney in the case, did not return WBEZ’s calls for comment after filing the company’s answer to the suit.

Jeffrey Kehl, a lawyer for Ron’s Staffing, has declined to comment about the case.

Raani is also contesting the OSHA citations, six of which the agency classified as willful, indicating “plain indifference” toward employee safety and health. The agency says it has made no decision on whether it will refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.

OSHA hadn’t inspected the Raani factory for 18 years before the Centeno incident. The WBEZ and Center for Public Integrity investigation found that the federal government is not keeping close track of temporary-worker injuries.

The Center for Public Integrity’s Jim Morris contributed reporting.

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