Man Who Hired Dozer Driver Killed in Big Sur Fire Sentenced for Breaking Labor Laws

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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)

Updated 8:30 a.m. on 12/14/19

A Monterey County judge has sentenced the employer of the only person to die in 2016's Soberanes Fire to 300 days of home confinement and three years of felony probation for violating a series of state labor laws.

Ian Czirban employed Robert Reagan, a contract bulldozer operator killed in the first days of a blaze that eventually burned more 130,000 acres in the mountains along the Big Sur coast.

Czirban was convicted in October of two counts of willfully failing to file a payroll tax return, one count of not carrying workers' compensation and one count of filing a false document.

Friday's sentencing by Monterey County Superior Court Judge Andrew Liu ends one chapter in a case that highlighted the prominent role of independent contractors in fighting California wildfires and illustrated some of the many dangers they face on the fire lines.

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Reagan died late the night of July 26, 2016, shortly after beginning a shift operating a bulldozer assigned to create a containment line on one flank of the Soberanes Fire. He suffered fatal injuries when his dozer flipped over on a steep slope.

Reagan left behind a wife, Morgan Kemple, and two young children. They have struggled financially in the aftermath of his death, in part because Czirban did not carry a valid workers' comp policy.

But Kemple joined Czirban's lawyer, Daniel Olmos, in asking the judge to be lenient in the sentencing.

"I am thankful that he will not serve time in jail," Kemple said in a text message Friday. "I specifically asked the judge not to take him from his children for any length of time."

In a sentencing memo filed before Friday's hearing, Olmos wrote that Czirban, too, has had a tough time in the aftermath of Reagan's death. He lost his contractor's license and faced financial trouble, the attorney told the court, but has worked hard to be a good father for his son and three daughters.

"More than anything, he does not want to leave his family," Olmos wrote.

"Regarding the death of Mr. Reagan, Ian regrets not doing enough to protect the families of loved ones who perform dangerous work. He continues to believe that he is innocent of criminal charges, but he grieves daily for the loss of his friend and for the continuing hardship of Mr. Reagan's family," Olmos wrote.

Monterey County Deputy District Attorney John Hubanks praised the sentencing.

"The court's sentence conveys a strong message to individuals who operate in - or are tempted to operate in - California's underground economy in order to evade state tax and insurance obligations," Hubanks said in an email.

Czirban is expected to serve half of his sentence because of state law for probationary and other nonviolent sentences, according to Olmos, who plans to appeal the conviction.

Olmos indicated in his sentencing document that the key to his appeal argument will be that Reagan was not Czirban's employee but instead, an independent contractor.

"It is entirely likely that this case will provide an additional opportunity for higher courts to consider whether to continue the shift toward limiting the circumstances in which employers are permitted to designate workers as independent contractors," Olmos wrote.

He was referring to a 2018 California Supreme Court decision, Dynamex Operations West v. Superior Court, that generally made it harder for businesses to classify workers as independent contractors. The decision prompted this year's AB 5, now signed into law, which created exemptions in the general worker classification rules for some industries and professions.

A hearing on how much Czirban will be sentenced to pay in restitution has yet to be scheduled. Hubanks said his office will ask the court to have Czirban compensate Kemple and her children.

The two sides return to court Jan. 20.