A Contractor Died Fighting a 2016 Wildfire – His Employer Was Just Convicted of Violating Labor Laws

Robert Reagan, 35, of Fresno County, died July 26, 2016, when his bulldozer overturned while trying to access a proposed fire line near Big Sur in the course of fighting the Soberanes Fire. (Cal Fire)

A Monterey County Superior Court judge found the employer of the only person to die in the massive 2016 Soberanes Fire criminally guilty of violating several labor laws in a case that debated whether heavy equipment operators hired to help the state battle wildfires are independent contractors or employees.

Judge Andrew Liu announced the verdict in a Salinas courtroom on Wednesday afternoon for Ian Czirban, who employed Robert Reagan, a contract bulldozer operator killed while fighting the blaze that grew to more than 130,000 acres near Big Sur.

Liu ruled that Czirban was guilty of two counts of willfully failing to file a payroll tax return, one count of not having workers' comp and one count of filing a false document.

"My biggest hope is that this opens Cal Fire's eyes," said Morgan Kemple, Reagan's widow, in a text message after the verdict.

After Reagan died, two other heavy equipment contractors were killed helping state fire crews battle large blazes whose employers also did not have workers' comp.

"Their contractors are repetitively claiming to have no employees. There needs to be a change and I sincerely hope this creates needed change," Kemple said.

Reagan, 35, of Fresno County died after the dozer he was operating toppled down an embankment on July 26, 2016, several days after what was once the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history to fight began.

Reagan left behind Kemple and two children. They struggled in the aftermath of his death, in part, because the company he worked for, Madera County-based Czirban Concrete Construction, did not have a valid workers' comp policy.

No Workers Comp in a Dangerous Line of Work
Loading

Heavy equipment firms that contract with Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service are required to have workers' comp. After state regulators determined the company lacked the benefit, Monterey County prosecutors charged Czirban with insurance and workers' compensation fraud and failure to pay taxes, among other counts.

Czirban pleaded not guilty. More than three years after the fire and Reagan's death, the case has come to a close.

In each of the next two years following Reagan's death, heavy equipment operators employed by small firms who contract with Cal Fire died helping battle some of California's worst fires.

In fact, the verdict comes two years to the day after Garrett Paiz, a private contractor helping firefighters battle the Nuns Fire, was killed after the water tanker he was driving crashed in Napa County on Oct. 16 2017.

State regulators determined that his employer, Red Bluff-based Tehama Transport, did not have workers' comp. The state Labor Commissioner's Office fined the firm and shut it down.

Two years to the day after Reagan died, bulldozer operator Donald Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, was killed during the Carr Fire near Redding when the rapidly growing fire overtook him. The company he worked for, Robert Dominikus General Engineering, did not have workers' comp either. State officials cited the company.

The verdict sends a message to heavy equipment contractors, according to Veena Dubal, an associate professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, who specializes in employment and has followed cases involving heavy equipment contractors in California's wildfire gig economy.

"If they continue to misclassify their workers and fail to provide the required workers' compensation insurance, as required by law, then they are taking a huge personal risk," Dubal said in an email.

Sponsored

Monterey County's successful prosecution could prompt district attorneys in other jurisdictions to prosecute similar cases, she said.

"Cal Fire should also be on notice. They need to do more than require that contractors say they carry workers' compensation," Dubal said, adding that the agency should do a better job of vetting their contractors documentation.

A Cal Fire spokesman has yet to comment on the ruling.

Kemple, Reagan's widow, said prosecutors in Napa and Shasta counties should pursue similar cases.

"I hope this gives those counties motivation to file on those families' behalf's as well," Reagan said.

Online Fundraising Where Workers Comp Should Be
Loading

At the crux of the prosecution's argument was what's become a familiar one in California's wars over workers' rights — that Czirban was Reagan's employer.

"We are aware of the underground economy. That was a theme in this case," said John Hubanks, Monterey County deputy district attorney, in a courthouse interview after the verdict was read.

"We felt pretty clearly that he was the employer. The law, under the facts in this case, was very clear," Hubanks said, adding that Czirban owned the bulldozer that Reagan was driving when he died, he paid people to drive it and he signed a contract for his company to do business with Cal Fire.

In court arguments, Hubanks argued that Czirban filed a false workers' comp insurance certificate, leading Cal Fire officials to believe they were hiring a firm abiding by the rules.

Hubanks said the fact that Czirban was convicted of not having workers comp means that he may have to pay restitution to Kemple and her two children.

"To me that was the crux of the case," Hubanks said. "I'm hoping the court will do the right thing and grant restitution."

The judge found Czirban not guilty of insurance fraud and filing a false workers' compensation exemption.

Czirban is due to be sentenced Dec. 13. Along with restitution, he faces the possibility of time behind bars in the county jail and probation, according to Hubanks.

Czirban's attorney argued that Reagan was not a traditional employee, but instead a contractor and that Czirban did not file false information or mislead anyone.

His attorney, Daniel Olmos, declined to comment after the hearing.

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.