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Pilgrim’s Pride faces suit for wrongful COVID-19 deaths of employee’s husband, deceased worker

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

Despite the CDC’s March 9, 2020, guidelines for workers, neither the employee nor the decedent allegedly was required or instructed to wear a mask, facial shield, or other precautions until late May or early June.

An employee who allegedly contracted COVID-19 at work and gave it to her husband, who then died from the disease, and the family of another worker who died of the coronavirus have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a Texas federal court against Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation (formerly Pilgrim’s Industries, Inc.), parent company JBS USA Holdings, Inc. (collectively Pilgrim’s Pride), and Packers Sanitation Services, Ltd. (PSSI). The plaintiffs accuse Pilgrim’s Pride of fraudulent misrepresentations, gross negligence, and incorrigible, willful, and wanton disregard for worker safety at its facilities in Texas. PSSI, while working with Pilgrim’s Pride facilities, purportedly failed to protect employees from known dangers of the coronavirus, and both businesses failed to timely ensure the health and safety of Pilgrim’s Pride’s employees, according to the complaint.

Meatpacking plants allegedly a COVID breeding ground. The complaint points to the CDC’s conclusion that the chief COVID-19 risk to employees at meatpacking plants, like the Mt. Pleasant chicken processing plant where the employee works as a janitor, and where the deceased employee worked on the processing line, comes from being in prolonged close proximity to other workers. Hundreds to thousands of employees like the decedent work in eight-hour shifts, shoulder to shoulder as they stand before a conveyor belt cutting and slicing meat, the plaintiffs said. “Additionally, workers often share equipment and contact the same surfaces repeatedly throughout the day, which have not been properly and thoroughly cleaned and sanitized per government guidelines,” the complaint alleges.

“Injury is common among workers, because workers often get only a second or two to complete their job before the next chicken comes,” the plaintiffs contend. “The frenzied pace and grueling physical demands of breaking down so many animals can make people breathe hard and make it difficult for them to keep masks properly positioned on their faces and clean.”

Another unique characteristic of Pilgrim’s Pride plants, which purportedly contributes to high rates of COVID-19 infections among their employees, is that the facilities are kept at a very cold temperature to prevent meat from spoiling or getting contaminated with pathogens that cause foodborne illness. “These cold temperatures allow the COVID-19 virus to stay viable outside the body for longer, increasing the survival of the virus in the air, and therefore increase the risk of infection in these plants,” according to the complaint.

Ignoring the dangers. The plaintiffs contend that despite an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak, Pilgrim’s Pride required employees to work long hours in cramped conditions. Further, despite the danger of COVID-19, the employer purportedly failed to provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and to implement sufficient social distancing or safety measures to protect workers from the outbreak. As a result, the decedent, the employee, and other Pilgrim’s Pride workers were infected with COVID-19 while working next to, around or near an employee at the company’s facilities who had COVID-19 asymptomatically and/or early symptoms.

Slow to take action. Pilgrim’s Pride and PSSI developed untimely plans, recommendations, guidance, safety procedures, and specifications for performance of work at the facility, according to the plaintiffs. Pilgrim’s Pride and PSSI allegedly either failed to follow those recommendations or did not follow them fully. The employee and the decedent purportedly continued to work in close proximity to other workers without proper and adequate protective gears, barriers, training, and sanitizing stations.

The complaint states that on January 31, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a national public health emergency. On February 12, 2020, the CDC recommended the use of masks when around other people. On March 5, 2020, the state of Texas had the ability to test for COVID-19. On March 9, 2020, with over 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, the CDC published federal guidelines for workers.

Pilgrim’s Pride and PSSI, having possession and control of the plant and the work being done there, owed a duty to all those working at the plant, including the employee and the decedent, to provide a reasonably safe work environment, free from unreasonable and dangerous hazards, but failed in this duty, the plaintiffs contend.

COVID-19 deaths. According to the complaint, neither the employee nor the decedent was required or instructed to wear a mask, facial shield, or other precautions until late May or early June of 2020. Allegedly, it wasn’t until on or around May 19, 2020, that the plant began offering COVID-19 testing. The employee took the test at the plant on May 20. On May 21, her husband allegedly began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms that were so severe, she took him to the hospital that night. He was disabled and had suffered a previous leg amputation. He died on May 22 from COVID-19, according to the medical examiner. Because he never left his home and was homebound from February to May 2020 until his visit to the hospital, the employee believes he almost certainly caught the virus as a result of exposure at her workplace.

On June 16, the decedent died from COVID-19, also confirmed by the medical examiner.

Negligence, gross negligence, carelessness, and recklessness. The complaint delineates an expansive list of the negligence, gross negligence, carelessness, and recklessness of Pilgrim’s Pride and PSSI and their agents and employees, which allegedly caused the deaths of the employee’s husband and the decedent, including this sampling:

  • Intentionally ignoring the fact that workers at the plant were infected with and/or were displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19;
  • Failing to timely provide appropriate PPE at the plant prior to March 30, 2020;
  • Failing to provide workers timely with any equipment to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the plant;
  • Failing to close the plant, despite the fact that the they knew, or should have known, that workers at the plant were suffering from symptoms consistent with COVID-19;
  • Ignoring federal guidance from the CDC and OSHA by not mandating the following: the use of masks and PPE, social distancing guidelines, that workers who were feeling ill report their symptoms to their superiors, and that workers who were feeling ill stay home from work and self-quarantine;
  • Requiring workers to stand less than six feet apart and failing to implement policies and procedures that mandated workers be kept six feet apart;
  • Failing to provide workers with masks and/or PPE; and
  • Failing to provide workers with clear guidelines for social distancing;

Relief sought. The plaintiffs are asking the court for a judgment against Pilgrim’s Pride and PSSI for actual, compensatory, and exemplary damages in accordance with the evidence; pre-judgment and post-judgment interest as provided by law; costs of court; attorney’s fees; and other relief to which they may be entitled.