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Fatal Payback for Organizing, Mother Says

GULFPORT, Miss. (CN) - A worker trying to unionize an unsafe workplace was dragged into a conveyor and killed when the plant intentionally left him unattended inside and failed to lock the equipment, his mother claims in court.

Cynthia Hebert sued Omega Protein, ACE American Insurance Co., and ESIS Inc., in Federal Court, seeking damages for the death of her son, Christopher Allen Hebert.

She claims Omega "engaged in intentional conduct designed to bring about injury, or death, to Christopher."

In the years before he died, Chris Hebert tried to unionize the workers at the unsafe plant, which met "harsh resistance" from management, his mother says in the complaint.

Christopher died on April 9, 2012, at Omega Protein's Moss Point, Miss. fish-processing plant, according to the complaint.

Houston-based Omega Protein produces omega-3 fish oil and fish meal.

Hebert, 24, had worked at the plant for three years, according to WLOX-TV of Biloxi.

While working in the maintenance department, he reported to his supervisors "what he believed to be unreasonably unsafe and dangerous working conditions," but management failed to act, according to the complaint.

"Upon information and belief, because Christopher's reports of unsafe and dangerous work conditions were not acted upon by Omega Protein, Christopher began to discuss with other employees and management the need to unionize the workers at the Moss Point facility," his mom says in the complaint. "Christopher began the process of unionization by having the employees sign a petition. Christopher believed that unionization of the employees at the Moss Point facility would help to improve the working conditions and eliminate the unsafe and unreasonable dangerous conditions there. Based upon information and belief, Christopher's efforts to unionize the employees of Omega Protein were met with harsh resistance from the management at Omega Protein. Based on information and belief, Christopher was harassed by the management of Omega Protein for his unionization efforts.

"On April 9, 2012, Christopher reported to work at the Moss Point facility. After arriving at work, he was directed by supervisor Wayne Gray to weld the seams of a newly installed hopper that released fish products into a single screw conveyor at its base. At that time, supervisor Gray assigned an employee to be Christopher's safety watchperson. This new 'safety' watchperson was not the same watchperson Christopher partnered with normally. At the time Christopher began his work, the single screw conveyor equipment remained energized and operational. At the time Christopher began his work, Christopher was unaware that the single screw conveyor was energized and operational. The single screw conveyor was not locked out or otherwise prevented from operating. While Christopher was inside the single screw conveyor, his safety watchperson left without notifying Christopher. After the safety watchperson left, another employee was directed by an Omega Protein supervisor to turn on the single screw conveyor.

"When the single screw conveyor was activated, Christopher was dragged into the machinery feet first. Christopher began screaming for help as the machine dragged him in. Other employees heard Christopher's screams and arrived at Christopher's location. Christopher's last words were 'I'm dead!' Christopher died of massive blood loss.

"Based upon information and belief, defendant Omega Protein intentionally chose not to have lockout equipment and safety rules for the single screw conveyor which killed Christopher. Based on information and belief, defendant Omega Protein intentionally left Christopher unattended in the energized and operational single screw conveyor without a safety watchperson. Based upon information and belief, defendant Omega Protein, by and through its employees, engaged in intentional conduct designed to bring about injury, or death, to Christopher."

Hebert's mother claims that ACE and ESIS, which provided workers' compensation insurance to Omega Protein, failed to inspect the plant and implement machinery safety rules.

Omega Protein did not have its own safety rules, and relied on the insurers to design and implement them, according to the complaint.

Hebert's family seeks compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful death, pain and suffering, negligence, and breach of contract.

It is represented by David Harris Jr. with the Corban Gunn Van Cleave Law Firm of Biloxi.

Omega Protein did not return a request for comment.

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