- A federal judge rejected Tyson Foods' defense that it isn't liable for an employee's death at its Waterloo, Iowa, plant because it followed guidance from the federal government to keep facilities open, according to documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. The suit was initially filed by the family of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson worker in Waterloo who died from COVID-19 complications on April 26.
- The case was originally filed in an Iowa district court in August before Tyson requested it be moved to federal court. The suit is now returning to Black Hawk County district court after the federal judge rejected the company's claims it was following the direction of federal officials, the Des Moines Register reported.
- As the coronavirus spread rapidly in meat plants early on in the pandemic, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in late April using the Defense Production Act to keep plants open as critical infrastructure. Industry was supportive of the order, saying it could help fight back legal issues.
When Trump issued the order to keep plants open, there were many questions raised around whether this action would endanger more workers or help to protect companies from legal liability if workers sued. However, U.S. District Judge Linda Reade ruled that the Fernandez case doesn't belong in federal court because the timing doesn't add up.
A case can be shifted to federal court if the defendant were acting at the direction of a federal officer — in this instance, Trump. But in her ruling, Reade noted that Trump's executive order, which Tyson used in its defense, wasn't signed until two days after Fernandez died. But even if the timing did line up and the executive order was in effect, Reade wrote that "no federal officer directed Tyson to keep its Waterloo facility open in a negligent manner (failing to provide employees with personal protective equipment, failing to implement adequate social distancing measures, failing to implement adequate safety measures related to the coronavirus) or make fraudulent misrepresentations to employees at the Waterloo facility."
This lawsuit has already proven explosive, including its claims that a Tyson manager at the Waterloo pork processing plant organized a "cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19." Tyson completed an independent investigation into the allegations and fired seven plant managers last month as a result. Now the court is closing off a major line of defense for the company.
Last spring at Tyson's Waterloo facility, which is its largest pork processing plant, more than 1,000 Tyson workers tested positive in an outbreak and five died, according to local officials cited in the suit. Iowa state lawmakers also filed an OSHA complaint against the company. Since then, Tyson said it implemented precautions, including symptom screenings, face masks and social distance monitors at the plant, and it partnered with Matrix Medical Network to establish an onsite clinic in Waterloo. In July, Tyson announced a testing and monitoring program at all 140 of its facilities, where it would test workers for the coronavirus weekly.
Tyson is not the first company to use Trump's executive order in court and it likely won't be the last. Back in May, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from a worker advocacy group that accused Smithfield Foods of failing to protect workers from the virus at a Missouri plant. The judge ruled that since the president issued the order, it was up to the executive branch and not the courts to keep watch. Then in November, Stampede Meat sued New Mexico using the executive order to fight a local public health order that required the company to close its processing plant for two weeks because of an outbreak.
There are other similar wrongful death and worker condition lawsuits pending at companies including Tyson, JBS and Smithfield. The federal judge's ruling against Tyson shows that companies using the executive order in their defense will need to prove the logistics and timeline for how it impacted their decision-making.