Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed the unsanitary conditions and health violations rampant in the meatpacking industry. The COVID-19 pandemic challenges the industry today. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s July 2020 report, the meatpacking industry identified 16,233 COVID-19 cases in 23 states, including 86 deaths, and the virus affected 239 facilities.
The COVID-19 outbreak placed a strain on the nation’s food supply after nearly two dozen plants closed due to workers infected with the virus. On April 26, 2020, Tyson Foods took out full-page newspaper ads stating the nation’s food supply was “vulnerable” and that Tyson would have to limit quantities of its products if the company had to close slaughterhouses.
In reaction, on April 28, 2020, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meatpacking plants as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The President’s order required meatpacking plants to stay open. The government also said the order would provide liability protection if workers were to get sick because the plants stayed open.
Although the court dismissed one of the COVID-19 lawsuits below against meatpacking plants, there are still others progressing through the nation’s court system. Our discussion of four of those cases is set out below.
JBS Meatpacking Plant Lawsuit
JBS is one of the largest meat processing companies in the world, and it suffered COVID-19 outbreaks at six facilities. Known for overcrowded conditions, meatpacking facilities cause employees to work long hours in proximity, and then they go home to congregate housing. Employees also travel crowded into small vans to meatpacking plants each day.
The family of Enoch Benjamin, a deceased shop steward at the JBS meatpacking plant in Pennsylvania, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on May 7, 2020 against the JBS Souderton slaughterhouse. The family cites JBS’ “reckless, negligent, and outrageous” behavior in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. According to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, Mr. Benjamin, age 70, died April 3, 2020 of respiratory failure brought on by the COVID-19 virus.
The JBS lawsuit alleges that Mr. Benjamin’s death was the foreseeable result of JBS ignoring worker safety precautions and its failure to follow federal COVID-19 guidance before closing the plant at the end of March 2020.
Smithfield Meatpacking Plant Lawsuit
Employees of the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant of Missouri filed suit in April 2020 to force the company to follow CDC guidelines to protect workers against the ravages of COVID-19. The lawsuit alleges that Smithfield Foods did not make it possible for employees to work socially distant. The company also enforced policies that motivated employees to work even if they were sick. Smithfield also did not provide masks until around April 16th, and the company expected those masks to last all week.
The lawsuit brought by Rural Community Workers’ Alliance (RCWA) and Jane Doe sought a restraining order and injunctive relief to force the company to follow CDC guidelines, including social distancing, hand washing guidelines, and COVID-19 testing. The plaintiffs did not seek money damages.
The court dismissed the Smithfield lawsuit citing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. courts, have jurisdiction over how the meatpacking plant complies with guidance for slowing the spread of the virus.
Tyson Meatpacking Plant Lawsuit
The families of three workers from the Tyson Meatpacking Plant in Waterloo, Iowa, filed a lawsuit in June 2020 saying the company knew about the COVID-19 outbreak since March or April but did not tell employees.
The lawsuit alleges the company’s policies put its workers at risk and that, as a result, the three workers represented in the lawsuit died from the virus. The lawsuit alleges Tyson made false representations about the safety of the plants during the uncontrolled outbreaks.
At the Waterloo facility, COVID-19 infected more than 1,000 of the 2,800 workers and exploded in the nearby community. The Plaintiffs seek money damages on behalf of the estates of workers Buljic, Garcia, and Ayala.
Iowa’s governor signed a shield law protecting businesses and healthcare providers from legal claims resulting from exposure to the virus. The shield law was effective retroactive to January 1, 2020, but the law has exceptions for hospitalization and death. Those exceptions mean the law should not roadblock the case.
Quality Sausage Meatpacking Plant Lawsuit
Mr. Dominguez was a 36-year-old forklift operator in the West Dallas meatpacking plant. He died in the hospital on April 25, 2020 after suffering COVID-19 symptoms from the outbreak at Quality Sausage. Hugo Dominguez’s wife and brother sued Quality Sausage for his wrongful death.
The lawsuit alleges that Quality Sausage did not take the necessary steps to address the pandemic nor safety precautions with respect to its workers. The plaintiffs say Dominguez was told to come to work even though he was sick. If he did not come to work, he was told he would be laid off. The lawsuit says that the company knew by April 8 that factory workers were ill with COVID-19 symptoms.
The Quality Sausage facility in Dallas closed April 24. County health inspectors are investigating the COVID-19 outbreak.
Anonymous legal claims protect claimants who have a case against their employer but want to protect their privacy and avoid retaliation. Lawyers bring “John and Jane Doe” lawsuits on their behalf, but they complicate litigation in the following ways:
- As pseudonym plaintiffs, anonymous plaintiffs face different court qualification standards in various districts
- Employers cannot contact trace the outbreak if they do not know the names of the victims
- Employers face increased difficulty with respect to discovery if they do not know who the plaintiffs are and in what areas of the factory they worked
- Employers are unable to question anonymous plaintiffs during litigation
As of May 17, 2020, lawyers filed approximately 30 Jane and John Doe lawsuits that have ties to the pandemic. Worker anonymity is especially onerous in occupational health cases because it is tough to correlate disease with the workplace.
OSHA indicated it will provide protection to meatpacking plants that show a good faith effort to comply with OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance. Meatpacking plants that find compliance with OSHA recommendations unworkable should document the reasons why. OSHA also indicated it does not anticipate citing meatpacking plants that show reasonable efforts to abide by the recommended guidance.