Allowing COVID-19 wrongful death lawsuit to proceed would 'open the floodgates to potentially thousands of speculative claims,' argues Tyson Foods

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Allowing this case to proceed could "open the floodgates to potentially thousands of speculative claims,” argues Tyson Foods. Picture: GettyImages-photovs
Allowing this case to proceed could "open the floodgates to potentially thousands of speculative claims,” argues Tyson Foods. Picture: GettyImages-photovs

Related tags COVID-19 coronavirus Tyson foods

As lawmakers argue whether COVID-19 liability shields for employers should be built into the next stimulus package, Tyson Foods has told a court in Texas that it can’t be held liable for the death of one of its employees because his family can't prove he contracted the virus at work.

In a motion to dismiss the closely-watched wrongful death lawsuit* vs Tyson Foods (one of several facing the meat giant), attorneys for Tyson said: “That Mr. Chavez is one of the many thousands of Americans who have died of complications related to COVID-19 is a tragedy. But the complaint brought by his estate fails to adequately plead a plausible claim against Tyson.

“To establish causation, Plaintiffs must plead—and ultimately prove—that Mr. Chavez ​[an employee at Tyson Foods’ Center plant in Shelby County, Texas, who died on April 17] contracted COVID-19 from his work rather than elsewhere, and then, that he contracted COVID-19 due to Tyson’s alleged negligence rather than some other cause.”

The complaint falls short on both counts, claimed Tyson: “Plaintiffs have not offered any well-pleaded factual allegations on causation—plausible or otherwise—that Mr. Chavez was infected at Tyson, much less due to Tyson’s negligence. To hold otherwise would open the floodgates to potentially thousands of speculative claims.”

Tyson: Claims in lawsuit are pre-empted by federal law

Even if it could be plausibly alleged that Mr. Chavez was infected at work because of Tyson’s negligence, the plaintiffs’ claims are pre-empted by federal law (the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act or PPIA), argued Tyson's attorneys: “The complaint makes no attempt to explain how plaintiffs’ proposed state-law standards of care are consistent with the PPIA.”

Finally, the complaint fails to take account of the designation of food companies as “critical infrastructure,” ​claimed Tyson.

“On March 16, the President issued Coronavirus Guidelines for America, which emphasized that, unlike workers in some industries, employees in critical infrastructure industries have a special responsibility to maintaintheir normal work schedule.

“The Governor of Texas issued a similar order on March 31 recognizing food processing facilities within the state as essential infrastructure.”

Plaintiffs: Tyson was grossly negligent

Jose Angel Chavez worked for Tyson for more than 20 years and died from complications caused by the coronavirus on April 17. His family, which is represented by Patrick O’Hara at the O’Hara law firm in Texas, argues that Tyson failed to protect Chavez from the known dangers associated with the coronavirus.

According to the plaintiffs, who accuse Tyson of gross negligence, the company failed to maintain a safe distance between employees, failed to provide PPE such as masks, gloves and/or face guards, and failed to require employees to not come to work who are sick.

Tyson, in turn, argues that it has “aggressively responded to the pandemic, working from the very beginning of COVID-19’s appearance in the United States to meet or exceed federal workplace guidelines, and investing in protective measures for its team.”

Do food & beverage firms need a liability shield to protect them against a torrent of COVID-19 related litigation?

The issue of liability protections for employers is one of many sticking points in the latest round of talks over the next stimulus package, with some Republicans including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell strongly in favor of a liability shield, and Democrats strongly opposed.

Food retail and wholesale trade association FMI The Food Industry Association argues that businesses that have acted in good faith to follow rapidly evolving local, state, and federal guidance should not have to face lawsuits that second guess these efforts after the fact​,” ​while Washington DC-based health advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), believes liability shields would encourage bad actors and deprive people of redress for negligent conduct.

COVID-19 and employer liability

The issue of liability in the food industry – a segment of the economy that has kept going as many other industries have been forced to hit 'pause' – has become particularly pertinent in light of the President’s April 28 executive order on meat plants​​​​, ​​​which generated headlines along the lines of ‘Trump compels meat plants to stay open​'​ (although it did not state that plants must remain open if workers are sick).

The order made no reference to meat plants’ legal liability should workers claim they contracted COVID-19 due to employer negligence, although the president told reporters in mid-April that it would “solve any liability problems​​​" they might have.

So far, only a handful of cases have been brought against meat companies over COVID-19 so it's too early to say how the courts will treat them. However, a judge recently dismissed a worker safety lawsuit** filed by an unnamed worker at the Smithfield meat processing plant in Milan, Mo., on the grounds that such matters are for federal regulators, not local courts, to decide. (Read more HERE​.)

*The case is Chavez et al. v. Tyson Foods Inc., 9:20-cv-00134 filed in the US district court for the eastern district of Texas.   

**The case is Rural Community Worker's Alliance et al. v. Smithfield Foods Inc. et al., case number 5:20-cv-06063, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

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