Bride-to-Be Crushed to Death by Car-Factory Robot
Regina Elsea was killed just two weeks after U.S. inspectors found two dozen safety violations at a South Korean-owned plant.
Regina Elsea was just starting her life. The Alabama bride-to-be had a new job, bought a brand-new car, and was two weeks from her wedding day.
But in June 2016, the 20-year-old was crushed to death while trying to fix a machine at the automotive plant where she worked.
Now Elsea’s mother has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company, Ajin USA, and recruitment agency Joynus Staffing. The complaint also lists several unidentified entities associated with the robotic machine as defendants.
The lawsuit comes two weeks after the U.S. Labor Department fined the Cusseta, Alabama, auto parts supplier—which stamps metal parts for Hyundai and Kia vehicles—and two staffing agencies $2.5 million for 27 safety violations.
The day Regina Elsea was killed, the assembly line stopped and she was among four of her coworkers to enter a robotic station to clear a sensor fault, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
When the machine stopped, employees tried calling maintenance for help but didn’t get anyone on the phone, so they decided to try to fix the problem on their own, according to news reports and the Elsea family lawyer.
Kendall Dunson of Beasley Allen Law Firm, which filed the wrongful death suit, told The Daily Beast that Ajin encouraged line employees to get a stalled machine “back up and running as quickly as possible.”
“That encouragement leads to instances when people can get into harm’s way,” Dunson said, adding, “[Elsea] was just the one who happened to be there when the machine activated. Other employees were there and also put in harm’s way. They were just not injured or killed.”
According to the lawsuit, filed in Chambers County Circuit Court, Elsea was operating an “unreasonably dangerous and defective” machine, which suddenly activated and crushed her while she was in a hazard zone.
“Her knowledge as a good employee contributed to her death,” Dunson told The Daily Beast. “Had she not been able to activate the machine, she wouldn’t have been crushed.”
Dunson said the robot should have been guarded with a sensor or a sensor mat, which would have prevented the machine from activating if a person is in a hazard zone. “She got treated like a car part and she got crushed and killed,” he said.
The robot unexpectedly restarted around 11 a.m. that day, squashing Elsea inside the machine according to an initial report by WTVM.
“My understanding is the victim walked around to the back side of the machine with her back turned to the robot and pushed something on the machine and it engaged and pushed her from the rear crushing her against another machine,” Chambers County Sheriff’s Office investigator Shannon Fraley said at the time.
Authorities said that the machinery was not shut down, or “locked out, tagged out,” even after the death.
“In fact, when I arrived I had to ask them to do it. It still had not been locked out, tagged out, even after the incident had taken place,” Fraley told WTVM.
Elsea was transported to the East Alabama Medical Center, then flown to UAB Hospital, where she died the next morning from her injuries.
OSHA said that Hyundai and Kia suppliers like Ajin USA, which opened in 2008 and employs 700 people in Cusseta, had been on notice before.
In 2015, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, Dr. David Michaels, traveled to South Korea to warn the car companies of hazardous conditions at their suppliers.
“This senseless tragedy could have been prevented if Regina Elsea’s employers had followed proper safety precautions,” Michaels said in a statement announcing the $2.5 million in fines against Ajin USA and staffing firms.
“Kia and Hyundai’s on-demand production targets are so high that workers at their suppliers are often required to work six and sometimes seven days a week to meet the targets,” Michaels added. “It appears that—to reduce its own costs in meeting these targets—this supplier cut corners on safety, at the expense of workers’ lives and limbs.”
OSHA issued a host of citations, including exposing workers to crushing and amputation hazards due to improper machine guarding, and failing to utilize energy control procedures to prevent machinery from starting up during maintenance.
Ajin USA has not commented on the lawsuit. After OSHA announced fines against it, Ajin released a statement saying it is conducting its own investigation into the incident and will continue to cooperate with the agency.
“We at Ajin remain deeply saddened over the tragic accident that took the life of one of our valued teammates, Regina Allen Elsea,” the company said.
Elsea was one of 26 women in workplace fatalities in the 2016 fiscal year. A review of Department of Labor statistics shows that a total of 1,087 people were killed on the job from October 2015 to September 2016.
One of those victims was Carmen Lindhardt, a Utah mother who died in February when she fell into an industrial mixer at a grocery store. As The Daily Beast previously reported, Lindhardt’s upper body was pulled into the machine.
Elsea’s death has devastated her coworkers and family, which has not spoken to news media since the tragic incident.
Her mother and stepfather had just renewed their vows in spring, and Elsea had served as a photographer of the event.
Elsea and her twin sister were the babies of the family. She had two older sisters and two brothers, her obituary stated.
“The family is extremely devastated,” Dunson said. “With the OSHA report coming out, it’s like it happened yesterday.”
It’s the first Christmas and New Year’s without the young woman, who, along with her fiancé, had a menagerie of pets at their home. (Her twin sister took in Elsea’s cats, while her mother adopted her three dogs, Dunson said.)
“She loved dogs, and could never turn a stray away. Her most special canine buddie was her much-loved ‘Cow,’” her obituary read.
While Elsea’s mother has shied away from reporters, she’s taken to Facebook to mourn her daughter.
“Yesterday made 6 months that our precious baby girl has been gone although some think I should be past it,” the grieving mother wrote last week.
The mom also posted a link to a local news story on OSHA’s fines against the car-part supplier.
“It’s not enough justice,” she wrote. “Nothing will ever be enough.”