For One Man, Migrant Life Was Trial by Fire : Former Farm Worker’s Lawsuit Blames Employers for Deadly Hooch Blaze

Times Staff Writer

Esteban Raul Lucas says that all he remembers of that evening, Oct. 22, 1987, was eating dinner with his friend by a campfire, having a few beers and returning, exhausted, to his nearby crude shack of scrap wood and plastic. He fell into a deep sleep, pulling blankets over himself as protection against the cold, not awakening even when his companion returned and apparently lit a candle.

That night Lucas’ life changed forever: The candle ignited a blaze that, in a few seconds, burned 75% of his body, ultimately requiring the amputation of all of his fingers. It killed the man with whom Lucas shared the dwelling. Lucas, alive and strong of spirit, is nonetheless a grotesque sight: his face badly deformed, his skin rough and reptilian, his hands fingerless stubs.

Such accidents are not unheard of in the hazardous farm-worker environment prevalent in northern San Diego County--site of some of the most wretched migrant conditions in the nation, experts agree. Lucas and his friend were among hundreds of homeless, undocumented farm workers who live in improvised dwellings throughout the area.


Similar Lawsuits

Lucas’ reaction, however, was quite unusual: With the assistance of an Escondido attorney, he and the family of the dead man have filed suit against both the landowner and two area growers, charging that they were directly responsible for the tragedy. At least two other similar lawsuits are pending in San Diego County Superior Court.

In the past, attorneys say, people maimed in such accidents typically have returned home to Mexico, never availing themselves of the the U. S. legal system.

The potentially precedent-setting cases argue that the seemingly anarchic camps where the accident occurred are, in fact, tightly controlled by landowners and growers, who have profited mightily by having the best of both worlds: a bountiful supply of cheap labor, and no requirement that decent housing be provided.

“They benefit by these people being here, but they don’t go the extra step of providing the housing that they need,” said Terry Singleton, the Escondido lawyer who decided to pursue the case after hearing of it from someone familiar with Lucas’ plight.

The matter is being litigated at a time when the farm-worker housing dilemma in North County is in the spotlight. Suburbanization of one-time rural enclaves has increasingly pitted homeowners--generally middle class or wealthy and white--against the mostly Mexican migrant laborers who reside in the fields.

Because of a number of factors--notably the area’s high housing costs, a rough topography that allows for hidden shelters and the vast pool of cheap labor so nearby--Lucas and other agricultural workers in northern San Diego County have for years resided in coarse “hooches” constructed amid the brush, lacking cover from the rain and cold, along with running water, electricity and cooking facilities.

In Encinitas, dozens of workers and their families were recently forced to move from their longtime encampment--which included an open-air restaurant--after nearby homeowners complained.

In a related development, initial construction has begun after numerous delays on a site in rural Bonsall--near the spot where Lucas was burned--on a new farm-worker housing tract being built by Singh Farms, one of the area’s major growers. Singh has expressed fears that laborers newly legalized under the amnesty law may desert the agriculture industry and seek other jobs that offer better working and living conditions. To date, however, other area growers have not followed Singh’s lead.

In Lucas’ suit, filed in Superior Court in Vista, he and the family of the dead man, Jorge Reyes, also a Mexican citizen, are seeking multimillion-dollar damage settlements from three principal defendants: the landowner on whose property the two men and dozens of other farm workers resided, and two nearby growers who allegedly hired laborers from the encampment. The lawsuit paints the picture of a tightly controlled farm-laborer mirco-society whose workers are subject to extreme exploitation but have few alternatives but to put up with it.

Technically Squatters

According to the suit, the landowner and farmers benefited from the “deplorable and inhumane” conditions in which the workers lived. While the field hands were technically squatters, the court papers charge that their movements and living conditions were in fact manipulated by the ranchers and the landowner, who regulated access to and from the camp, provided the workers with building materials and encouraged them to live in the squalid settlement, conveniently situated near the farms.

“They (the defendants) consciously ignored the peril and intentionally failed to remedy the situation, knowing that injury to persons . . . was a virtual certainty,” Lucas’ suit says.

The growers and landowner named have denied any liability, contending, among other things, that Lucas and the dead man were the victims of “an act of providence” and failed to exercise “reasonable care” and contributed to their injuries by exhibiting “willful misconduct,” apparently by trespassing and using candles.

Attorneys for the two growers, George T. R. Murai Farms Inc., headed by George Murai, and Chiquito Navarro Ranch, headed by Jesus Navarro, both based in Orange County, failed to return telephone calls from The Times.

The landowner, Perry Pollack, said in a telephone interview that he was unaware that the migrants were living on his land when the fire occurred, and denied that he had made any kind of an arrangement with the growers to allow the laborers to reside on the 28-acre parcel. He said he has since cleared the land--at a cost of more than $5,000--and paid to erect a barbed-wire fence and hire a security service to keep migrants off.

‘How Could It Be My Fault?’

“I feel terrible about what happened, but how could I avoid it?” said Pollack, who described himself as an 80-year-old retiree. “I didn’t ask them to come on my land. . . . How could it be my fault?”

No one appears to reside on the fenced-in parcel now, but many laborers still live in the nearby brush. On Sunday morning, a dozen Mexican men who said they were farm workers bathed at a water pipe a few hundred yards from where the fire took place.

The legal basis on which the case turns is the same potential liability faced by any landowner or employer whose guest or employee suffers an accident. Lucas, however, as someone who was technically a trespasser, must demonstrate that the defendants exerted control on the camp and its dwellers--the central assertion that is in dispute.

While not a class action, lawyers say the suit, if it results in a substantial judgment and is upheld on appeal, could eventually set a precedent: Growers and landowners would be put on notice that they could be held liable for mishaps related to workers’ housing--even if the laborers are deemed squatters, as is the case with much of the San Diego farm work force.

For years, some farm-labor advocates have argued that growers have encouraged the current arrangement because it provides an ample labor supply and saves ranchers from having to build dwellings for their workers, housing that would be costly to construct and would be subject to state and federal inspection. They say that growers, sometimes in concert with landowners, provide the migrants with scrap material to build their shanties, and facilitate the frequent visits of commercial catering trucks that sell food and other necessities--including candles--to the migrant populations, typically at substantial mark-ups from grocery-story prices.

Area farm representatives reject such reasoning, blaming the substandard migrant-worker living predicament on the general lack of affordable dwellings. “Any statements that growers encourage (workers) to live in the barrancas is ludicrous,” said Charley Wolk, a Fallbrook grower who is president of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, which represents the area’s $500-million agriculture industry. (A barranca is a rough area such as a ravine or river-bottom.)

Choose to Live Outdoors

Agricultural spokesmen say the migrants choose to live outdoors and trespass on others’ land, freely rejecting other alternatives, such as renting apartments together. Informed of the facts of the Lucas case, Wolk responded, “It’s a classic situation where a burglar breaks into my home, and he sues me because I didn’t exercise due caution.”

Advocates for migrant workers say they hope that if Lucas’ litigation is successful, it will prompt landowners and growers to provide large-scale, decent housing for the workers. But there is also fear that things could become more desperate.

“Either you’ll see more razor wire and barbed wire going in to keep people off, or there will be an effort to provide more amenities to the workers,” said Steve Rosenbaum, staff attorney in San Francisco with California Rural Legal Assistance, a farm labor advocacy group.

No trial on the Lucas case is expected for at least 18 months. Appeals could drag on for years after.

Meantime, Lucas is trying to put his life back together after what he refers to as his “rebirth.”

When he regained consciousness in the hospital bed, almost two months after the fire, among the first sounds he thought he heard were the all-too familiar shouts of the farm foremen waking him up, and the thud of tomatoes being dropped in a bucket. The first dreamlike thought was that he had to get to work, back to the fields.

Migrant for a Decade

“I said to myself, ‘It’s the time of planting strawberries and picking tomate ; I need to go out and work,’ ” Lucas recalled, sitting on a couch in his lawyer’s Escondido office.

Lucas has ridden the migrant stream for more than a decade, traveling from his home in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero as far north as the apple orchards and berry groves of Washington state.

In all the places he has worked, he says, the conditions in San Diego are by far the most primitive. He speaks almost wistfully of his time in the Northwest, where housing for field hands was provided by the growers.

“In the ranches where one works,” he said without visible rancor, “what’s important is that there are people to work. One’s life doesn’t interest the growers. . . . If you don’t want to work or live in those conditions, they say there are many more who will do it. . . . One has to make do, because you need the work.”

When Lucas finally came to at UC San Diego Medical Center, he found himself bandaged from head to toe. The nurses and doctors, whom he credits with saving his life, initially spared him the trauma of knowing the extent of his injures, that his fingers had been amputated. At first he didn’t even remember his friend; then he was incredulous that the man had perished and he had survived. “I thought, ‘Why him and not me?’ ”

There was at least one occasion, he says, when he determined that fate had dealt him a foul hand by allowing him to live, granting him the gift of life without any means to sustain himself. “I couldn’t do anything,” he recalls. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go to the bathroom . . . . I said to myself that I’d be better off dead. I didn’t have anything.”

Made Up Mind to Live

Eventually, he emerged from his despair, aided by the hospital nurses and social workers. Lucas made up his mind to live, reasoning that, despite his poverty, he could always beg, presaging a bleak future as one of the army of disfigured mendicants who haunt the streets of Latin America. Once determined to live, he was eager to see his family again.

He was released from the hospital in January, 1988, almost three months after the fire. Since then, his attorney has assisted him with living expenses and medical bills. Lucas returned to San Diego recently from his home in rural southern Mexico, where he stayed at the home of his parents, who have long cared for his two teen-age children. He has become accustomed to the laughs and looks of disgust that so often greet his presence.

He recalls little of the accident. He knows that he and the friend who died had spent that day resting, doing their wash and eating, as well as visiting an amnesty clinic in nearby Vista. (Any chance for amnesty went with the fire, along with all his papers and his ability to support himself, which are necessary to qualify for the program.) He remembers returning to the shack late that evening after eating, leaving his friend at the nearby campfire. He was evacuated by medical helicopter, near death.

After the fire started, nearby workers pulled the victims from the blaze.

Lucas is seeing a Tijuana plastic surgeon and undergoing physical therapy. He says he looks forward to the day when he is perhaps fitted with prosthetic devices for his hands, and can once again accomplish with some ease the little tasks of life.

“Until now,” he said with pride, “I haven’t had to beg. . . . There are many things that can happen to those of us who adventure to the north. Some are killed on the way; some die in accidents, on highways, in freight trains. One has to make do. . . . I know that if God cares for all the little creatures of the earth, and they survive, then I, too, can survive with His help.”