A lawsuit alleging Tyson Foods’ negligence and disregard for proper safety measures led to the deaths from COVID-19 of four employees of its Waterloo, Iowa, plant can move forward in state court, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
Tyson had removed the case to federal court, arguing it kept the plant open because it was acting under the direction of a “federal officer,” President Donald Trump. A federal district judge ordered the case remanded to state court a year ago, and Tyson appealed.
But in a decision issued today, three judges of the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals said Tyson “has failed to show that it was performing a basic governmental task or operating pursuant to a federal directive in March and April of 2020.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers hailed the decision. Adam Pulver of Public Citizen Litigation Group said Tyson’s arguments “had the potential to immunize thousands of American employers from negligent and reckless behavior throughout the pandemic — the 8th Circuit has confirmed that COVID-19 did not alter well-established legal principles of federalism.”
His fellow attorneys, Mel C. Orchard, III and G. Bryan Ulmer of The Spence Law Firm, said that “Waterloo was ravaged by COVID-19 – because of Tyson’s choices and conduct. As the Eighth Circuit recognized, a local Iowa jury should have final say on right and wrong.”
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In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Tyson Foods said:
"We’re saddened by the loss of any of our team members to Covid-19 and are committed to protecting the health and safety of our people. We’ve implemented a host of protective measures in our facilities and in 2021 required all of our U.S. team members to be vaccinated. We’re reviewing the court’s decision and, while we’re disappointed, we’ll be considering next steps in the legal process."
About a year ago, the packing giant fired seven employees at the plant over allegations that they had wagered about how many employees would contract COVID. The allegations were contained in an amended complaint filed on behalf of Isidro Fernandez, who died April 26, 2020, and whose son filed the suit on his behalf.
More than 1,000 of the approximately 2,800 employees at the plant caught the virus, and five died, according to Fernandez’s amended complaint, which said Tyson “required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions. Moreover, despite the danger of COVID-19, Tyson failed to provide appropriate personal protective equipment and failed to implement sufficient social distancing or safety measures to protect workers from the outbreak.”
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