Meatpacker Worker Deaths Spark Lawsuits

Families of COVID-19 Victims Allege Workers Unprotected at Packing Plants

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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As meatpacking plants across the country grapple with COVID-19, the families of two workers who died from the virus have filed lawsuits. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Vicki Myers)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The families of two meatpacking plant workers have sued two companies, alleging the lack of safety precautions at work led to the COVID-19 deaths.

JBS and Quality Sausage Company each face civil lawsuits, connected with the deaths of workers at a JBS meatpacking plant in Pennsylvania and at a QSC sausage plant in Texas.

Meatpacking plants across the country continue to slowly resume operations, following an executive order from President Donald Trump that cites the Defense Production Act.

According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, as of Wednesday 206 meatpacking and food-processing plants have confirmed COVID-19 cases. More than 15,000 workers at meatpacking and food-processing plants have tested positive, according to FERN and at least 60 workers have died.

On May 7 in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the family of former JBS Souderton, Pennsylvania, employee Enock Benjamin filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

JBS has experienced COVID-19 outbreaks in at least seven plants in the United States including in Souderton; Greeley, Colorado; Plainwell, Michigan; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Cactus, Texas; Worthington, Minnesota and Grand Island, Nebraska.

"This wrongful death and survival action concerns the negligent, reckless, and outrageous conduct of JBS, the largest beef processing company in the world, because it elected to pursue profits over safety during a global pandemic," the lawsuit said.

Benjamin died of respiratory failure on April 3, 2020, "caused by the pandemic virus, COVID-19," the lawsuit alleges.

"Enock Benjamin's death was the predictable and preventable result of the JBS defendants' decisions to ignore worker safety," the lawsuit said.

JBS did not respond to DTN's request for comment.

The lawsuit alleges JBS "ignored federal guidance" prior to shutting down the plant on March 30, 2020.

The family alleges JBS didn't provide personal protective equipment for its 1,400 employees and, "forced workers to work in close proximity," and forced workers to use cramped and crowded work areas, break areas, restrooms, and hallways."

In addition, the lawsuit alleges the company "discouraged workers from taking sick leave in a manner that had sick workers in fear of losing their jobs; and failed to properly provide testing and monitoring for individuals who have may have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19."

The lawsuit said the Souderton plant increased production in March 2020, "adding a 'Saturday kill' to capitalize on increased demand caused by public panic purchases of ground meat."

It was during that time the lawsuit alleges Benjamin contracted the virus at the plant.

"By choosing profits over safety, JBS demonstrated a reckless disregard to the rights and safety of others, including Enock Benjamin," the lawsuit alleges.

"Based upon information and belief, the culture at JBS Souderton resulted in workers coming to work sick for fear of losing their job if missing multiple days of work."

JBS closed the Souderton plant on March 27, 2020, to conduct sanitation after multiple workers became ill. Press reports indicated that by April 2, 2020, 19 employees at the plant tested positive.

"Based upon information and belief, up to and including March 27, 2020, workers at JBS Souderton were still not required to wear masks and/or other PPE, despite CDC and OSHA guidance to the contrary," the lawsuit alleges.

Benjamin last worked at the plant on March 27, the lawsuit said, leaving work early with a cough. He died one week later.

The family is asking for compensation in an amount in "excess of the jurisdictional threshold."

QUALITY SAUSAGE COMPANY

The family of a Quality Sausage Company employee, Hugo Dominguez, filed a similar lawsuit in the 44th Civil District Court in Dallas County, Texas, alleging the company did not take proper precautions to protect workers from COVID-19, leading to Dominguez's April 25 death. Another employee of the plant also died.

"He was a victim of a workplace which gave more importance to profits, than human life," the lawsuit alleges.

"Hugo was in the course and scope of his employment working for the defendant, when the COVID-19 virus started to spread in the country, the state, and Dallas County. This company, which produces and packages meat products, refused to take the pandemic seriously, and kept its functions as normal, taking no precautions and implementing no protocols for the safety of its workers."

When contacted by DTN, a spokesman for Quality Sausage Company provided this statement, "The health and well-being of our employees is extremely important to us. The spread of COVID-19 across the country and within our community is challenging all of us. Quality Sausage Company has continually updated our procedures to reflect current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

The lawsuit alleges employees at the plant began to show symptoms of illness around April 8.

"During the course and scope of his work, decedent was driving the forklift, and as his symptoms became evident, he was told to report to work and to keep at it -- otherwise he would have been laid off," the lawsuit said.

"A man with a strong work ethic and deep commitment to his children and family, he continued to work till the day he just couldn't go on, and a few days later he was gone."

Following his death, the lawsuit said the factory shut down to re-evaluate the situation.

"Decedent suffered serious illness as a result of the company, which was negligent in taking any action to protect its employees," the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit asks for at least $1 million in monetary relief.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley