Meat companies are asking judges to dismiss complaints that allege they are responsible for worker deaths related to covid-19.
In recent court filings, the companies say workers likely didn't contract the virus while at work, and if so, the complaints must account for President Donald Trump's order to keep the plants running.
Meatpacking plants are designated "critical infrastructure" under an executive order signed after workers started getting sick. Several workers died and some of their families sued the corporations for not taking necessary precautions.
Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride and others are filing motions to dismiss the claims. In a mix of court documents, they claim the families have not given specific examples to show employers were negligent or liable in the deaths of the infected workers.
Jose Chavez, who worked at Tyson for more than 20 years, died April 17 from complications caused by the coronavirus, according to a wrongful death complaint filed in a Texas federal court. His employer failed to provide a safe work environment after the pandemic began, Chavez's relatives claim. They allege that Tyson didn't provide masks, check for fevers, facilitate social-distancing or temporarily close the plant before his death.
"The complaint simply argues that Mr. Chavez got infected because he worked at Tyson. Without more, this case must be dismissed," the Springdale-based company said in a court filing last week. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in addressing the pandemic to protect meatpacking workers and to keep the plants running.
"If the sparse, conclusory allegations here were sufficient, virtually any employer, retail business, restaurant, school, or host could be sued for failing to take sufficient measures to protect anyone who worked or visited from infection," Tyson said in the filing. It also noted that the Chavez family didn't explain how its claims were preemptive at the federal level and took no account for the national emergency declared earlier this year.
Robert Steinbuch, a professor at the William Bowen School of Law in Little Rock, said it's often common for organizations to seek immunity during a crisis, but "that is a very powerful tool that should be used highly sparingly."
"I fear that people are trying to rely on the pandemic to create a get-out-of-jail-free card when the existing legal regime certainly should not be tossed out," he said.
Meatpacking plants became hot spots for the virus in the spring. Within the first 100 days of the pandemic, over 14,000 industry workers were infected, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. At least 65 workers have died.
In late April, Trump signed an executive order, evoking the Defense Production Act, that designated meat and poultry processors as "critical infrastructure" so they could remain open. Several processing plants had closed temporarily to sanitize and test workers for the virus, resulting in the loss of millions of pounds of meat.
The order was signed days after Tyson Foods took out a full-page advertisement with several newspapers, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, warning of a damaged food supply chain and meat shortage. Since then several negligence lawsuits against meatpackers have been filed.
Maria Hernandez, 63, who worked at Pilgrim's Pride for more than 30 years, died in May after being sent to a nearby plant to cover a shift for absent workers infected by the virus, according to a complaint filed last month. Despite her age and higher risk of infection, the company sent her to a "known hot spot for the virus," her son, Oscar Requenda, said in the filing.
The company filed a motion to dismiss because her children failed to show causal evidence of how it was responsible for her mother's death and their claims are preempted by federal law.
"I think it's highly unlikely that an executive order alone can eliminate liability," Steinbuch said. He also said defenses that omit wrongdoing because of insufficient facts were weak.