All through 2020, Big Meat and the Trump White House abused immigrants and low-income people working at the nation's slaughterhouses, all but physically forcing them to work in a cauldron pot of coronavirus. The White House named meat packers essential workers while Big Meat failed to do enough to protect its on-line employees from COVID-19. Predictably, avoidable illness and death followed.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reports “as of April 2021, there have been at least 50,000 reported positive cases tied to meat and poultry processing facilities from at least 498 outbreaks in 38 states, and at least 248 reported worker deaths in at least 65 plants in 28 states.
Now the families of Big Meat employees around the nation are suing for wrongful death. Like Sibyl Elijah and Rayford Brown who say Pilgrim’s Pride and JBS Holdings Incorporated's “fraudulent misrepresentations, gross negligence, and incorrigible, willful and wanton disregard for worker safety at Pilgrim’s Pride facilities” caused the wrongful deaths of their respective spouses.
The lawsuit goes on to say:
“Defendants acted with reckless disregard by reporting that Pilgrim’s Pride plants had taken proper timely precautions to prevent the spread of the virus among its own employees. Despite the clear and present danger the virus presented, Defendants kept the Plant open during the entire duration of 2020, even after hundreds of workers fell ill and others died.”
The lawsuit was filed in state court, specifically the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas of Texarkana Division. And that's a problem for Big Meat which does not, no way, no how, want to simultaneously defend its handling COVID-19 in multiple states and venues.
Certainly, Tyson Foods doesn't. Last year, Hus Buljic and other relatives of four deceased meat packing workers filed a lawsuit in Iowa state court, saying Tyson knowingly lied to workers at its Waterloo packing plant resulting in over 1,000 COVID infections and at least five deaths.
Late last year, Tyson Food argued in Iowa state court that the case belonged in federal court because the company was acting “at the direction of a federal officer.” Tyson claims that because former President Donald Trump declared meatpacking plants critical infrastructure during the COVID pandemic Big Meat can invoke the Federal Officer Removal Statute which would shut out the filing of COVID wrongful death cases in state courts.
Needless to say, Big Meat is rooting for Tyson.
Last December the federal district court slam dunked Tyson, saying the company was not acting as a federal officer and that the Defense Production Act, and for good measure the Federal Meat Inspection Act, did not trump the ability of meat packing workers to file in state court.
Nonetheless, Tyson has appealed the case to the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Fortunately, there's plenty of opposition.
Lawyers in eighteen states and the District of Columbia filed an amicus brief to Tyson's scheme, saying the Arkansas meat giant was attempting to undermine the ability of states to enforce their own laws. And the federal government also thinks Tyson is blowing hot air. The feds filed an amicus brief saying Tyson was doing nothing more than conducting business as usual:
"Tyson was not performing a federal function during the relevant period," the government said in its brief. "The allegations in this case concern Tyson's performance of its ordinary business functions — processing and delivering meat under preexisting private contracts. Although the pandemic brought the importance of these functions into the public consciousness, federal officials' acknowledgment of their importance and support for their continuance did not serve to federalize these fundamentally private actions."
What Tyson Foods is doing is reprehensible. Its game plan is to delay, delay, DELAY. Let's be honest. The meat workers who did from COVID-19 were primarily immigrants or folks without a lot of money. People lacking the resources to take on Big Meat. Many of the wrongful death lawsuits are being litigated pro-bono. Tyson will deny it, but I say the hope is that plaintiffs will just give up. The Eighth Circuit needs to put a stop to this nonsense as soon as possible.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.