A jury awarded a $14 million injury settlement in the gruesome accident at the SSA Marine terminal at the Port of Long Beach that forever changed life for a 42-year-old truck driver. In February 2009, Felipe Curiel miraculously survived after suffering massive injuries from being pancaked in his rig by a cargo container at the hands of an SSA crane operator. While his career ended that day, today he manages to walk with leg braces and a cane.
SSA, the global shipping and transportation outfit jointly owned by Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, is no stranger to negligence or traumatic accidents at their terminals. Just days before Mr. Curiel was saved by the “jaws of life,” fellow port truck driver Pablo Garcia, a 40-year-old father of three, was crushed to death in a preventable accident involving a forklift and steel port machinery. The story made national headlines and was the subject of a special report in Univision’s leading television news magazine “Primer Impacto.” The Garcia family also successfully brought suit against the Seattle-based port giant SSA Marine, the parent to the large West Coast trucking company, Shippers Transport Express, and recently settled for an undisclosed amount.
These are not isolated incidents but rather everyday hazards in the lives of the ten thousands of truck drivers that work at U.S. ports. While rare monetary settlements might bring some assistance and closure to the Garcia and Curiel families, skilled workers responsible for commanding the wheel of container rigs weighing up to 80,000 lbs. remain highly vulnerable to job-related tragedies. Their employers’ favored business model – illegal subcontracting – means drivers lack the basic workplace protections they need such as workers’ compensation and safety whistleblower protections. Wrongful employment status further excludes the men and women who work in one of America’s most dangerous industries from a critical form of recourse: government safety agencies cannot investigate injuries they may suffer on the job, permitting their companies to shed any scrutiny, let alone liability.
Abdul Khan, a father of two young girls who has hauled cargo in and out of the Port of Oakland for six years, chillingly put it this way: “All day long we are surrounded by heavy machinery that can take a limb or our lives in the blink of an eye, but we don’t even have the protections that will keep us or the public safe.”
Advocates helped ensure Garcia and Curiel’s catastrophes were widely publicized, but countless other “under the radar” injuries and accidents demonstrate a clear-cut need for the government to establish and enforce real safety and labor reforms in the port trucking industry. The urgency has reached California’s Assembly in the form of AB 950, the Truck Driver Employment and Public Safety Protection Act. Co-sponsored by Assembly speaker John Pérez and Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, the bill would require port drivers to be treated as employees of the trucking or shipping companies that arrange for or engage these workers’ services. No longer would drivers be denied workers’ compensation, disability benefits, or be retaliated against for voicing safety concerns and violations.
AB 950 is a step in the right direction to bringing all port drivers closer to justice.