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Family of tree trimmer killed by wood chipper sues

It was just another work day for Rafael Jimenez, a veteran tree trimmer in his 24th year on the job.

But as he stuffed branches from a Chinese elm tree into a wood chipper that sunny day in April 2008, his right hand became entangled in the branches and Jimenez found himself being jerked toward the steel knives.

The machine, which devours a 20-inch branch in a second, consumed nearly his entire body.

On Thursday, his wife and four children filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that the manufacturer of the machine, Michigan-based Morbark, knew for years that its safety features were insufficient and had done nothing to prevent injuries and deaths like Jimenez’s.

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The family’s attorney, Edward Steinbrecher, said Morbark -- one of the largest manufacturers of wood chippers -- has taken the position in previous lawsuits that the operators have been at fault for any injuries.

The Morbark wood chipper has pull cords inside its chute designed to stop the machine in case of an emergency, but Steinbrecher says the cords are inadequate because they cannot be accessed by someone being pulled down the chute.

Larry Noch, Morbark’s vice president of claims, declined to comment on the lawsuit or respond to Steinbrecher’s allegations, saying his company had not received the suit. In depositions in previous lawsuits, Noch testified that the company was aware of roughly 75 to 90 injuries caused by its machines since 1997.

According to a 2005 report by the American Medical Assn., wood chippers were responsible for 31 deaths and 2,042 injuries from 1992 to 2002.

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Jimenez, a 46-year-old immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, was working as a senior tree trimmer for the city of Inglewood at the time of the accident. His partner was at the top of a tower car trimming the tree, wearing earmuffs to block out the sound of the chipper.

A motorist spotted Jimenez being pulled into the machine and honked his horn to alert the partner, but Jimenez disappeared into the machine before he or the driver could do anything.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health conducted an investigation into Jimenez’s death and issued three citations against Inglewood in October, including a serious violation for failing to develop a written emergency procedure to stop the machine. The city was ordered to pay a fine of more than $22,000, but has appealed the citation.

Friends and co-workers said Jimenez was aware of the dangers of the job, and always took precautions. They said a partner he worked with at a previous job was electrocuted while trying to move a palm branch that had fallen on a power line.

They also said that other Inglewood tree trimmers nearly severed their fingers as they were sharpening the wood chipper’s blades or working with a chain saw, and that Jimenez had fallen off trees and suffered cuts and other injuries on the job.

Jimenez’s family and friends said he was a well-liked, hard-working man who took pride in his job and loved his family.

He worked long hours, leaving home about 4 a.m. every morning, often returning about 8 at night. On weekends, he trimmed trees at private homes from Inglewood to Beverly Hills to provide for his son and three daughters.

He loved trees and compared himself to a hair stylist, saying he made trees look beautiful like coiffeurs did for people, said Juan Mata, a close friend and an Inglewood parks supervisor.

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It angered Jimenez when he saw trees that had been scarred or damaged, friends said.

“He saw trees as human,” said Ramon Mata, Juan’s brother, who worked with Jimenez in Inglewood. “If he saw someone hitting a tree with a piece of metal, he would say, ‘Don’t hit the tree, the skin peels off and you see water coming down. The tree cries too.’ ”

His 19-year-old son, Rafael Jimenez Jr., said his father arrived in the U.S. as a 17-year-old and worked his way up from a groundskeeper picking up trash to a senior tree trimmer supervising crews on the job.

He moved his family from a small apartment to a home in Bellflower, then to a nicer home in Perris.

He wore the same clothes for years, but bought new clothes for his children every month, his son recalled.

“He was a happy guy when he went to work,” his son said.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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