A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a community advocacy group and a worker at Smithfield’s Milan, Mo., pork plant, finding the company has taken “significant steps … to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant.”
The company has enhanced cleaning and disinfection, taken measures to promote social distancing, is processing fewer hogs and has increased pay for employees who are working fewer hours, U.S. District Judge Greg Kays said in his order.
“Given the significant measures Smithfield is now taking to protect its essential workers from COVID-19 and the fact that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 currently at the plant, the court cannot conclude that the spread of COVID-19 at the plant is inevitable or that Smithfield will be unable to contain it if it occurs,” Kays said.
The judge deferred to the jurisdiction of USDA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and said such deference “will ensure uniform national enforcement” of joint meat and poultry guidance issued by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If he were to rule on whether the plant is complying with the joint guidance, “this ruling would be binding on Smithfield but not other meat-processing facilities because the court lacks personal jurisdiction over them.”
Such a determination “could easily lead to inconsistent regulation of businesses in the same industry. And under these circumstances, where the guidelines are rapidly evolving, maintaining a uniform source for guidance and enforcement is crucial.”
“National and local guidance on COVID-19 is continuously evolving and changing,” the judge said. “An injunction would deny Smithfield the flexibility needed to quickly alter workplace procedures to remain safe during the ever-changing circumstances of this pandemic.”
David Muraskin, litigation director for the Public Justice Food Project and counsel for the plaintiffs, said Smithfield workers’ “unprecedented stand for workplace safety has resonated across the entire meatpacking industry. Smithfield, and other companies across the country, are now on notice that the entire nation is watching their actions and insisting on fair treatment for their employees.”
Smithfield did not respond immediately to a request for comment. It had previously called the claims in the lawsuit "without factual or legal merit" and said some of them had already "been investigated and determined to be unfounded."
The worker in the lawsuit is identified as "Jane Doe." The other plaintiff was the Rural Community Workers Alliance.
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“Plaintiffs argue that their injury is potentially contracting COVID-19, which could result in serious illness or even death,” Kays said. “But this type of injury is too speculative under Eighth Circuit precedent.” The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals encompasses federal courts in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Arkansas and Nebraska.
Kays said he was “not unsympathetic to the threat that COVID-19 presents to the plant’s workers. But in conducting its analysis, the court must determine whether plaintiffs will suffer an actual, imminent harm if the injunction is denied. This is not the same as analyzing whether employees risk exposure if they continue to work, and, unfortunately, no one can guarantee health for essential workers — or even the general public — in the middle of this global pandemic.”
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