Judge: Trump’s order doesn’t shield Tyson from state-court claims of wrongful death

By: - January 5, 2021 3:41 pm

Tyson Foods is facing new challenges in its effort to dispose of lawsuits accusing the company of failing to protect workers from injury and death due to COVID-19. (Photo by Tyson Foods)

A federal judge has ruled that President Trump’s designation of meatpacking plants as “critical infrastructure” does not insulate Tyson Foods from state-court claims of wrongful death tied to the pandemic.

The food giant is facing several lawsuits filed by the estates of deceased workers. Generally, those lawsuits allege fraudulent misrepresentation and gross negligence, claiming the company failed to adequately protect its workforce from COVID-19 and mispresented the dangers posed by outbreaks inside the company’s food-processing plants.

In most of those cases, Tyson has attempted to have the proceedings moved from state court, where they were initially filed, to federal court, arguing that the company has been operating “under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture” during the pandemic, and that it has “worked hand-in-hand with federal officials from the time of the declaration of a national emergency.”

Tyson’s claim is that because it has been helping the government produce food needed “for the national defense,” and because President Trump ordered meatprocessing plants to continue operating during the pandemic, the federal courts are the proper forum for resolving each lawsuit.

In a case involving the family of one deceased Tyson employee, Isidro Fernandez, who worked in the company’s Waterloo, Iowa, plant, U.S. District Court Judge Linda R. Reade has ruled that while Tyson cites Trump’s April 28, 2020, executive order blocking the closure of meat plants, the offenses the company is alleged to have committed in the case took place weeks before. In fact, Fernandez died two days before the president’s order, Reade noted.

As to the larger and more important issue of Tyson being designated part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” by the president, Reade noted the lawsuit does not seek damages for Tyson’s failure to shut down the Waterloo facility, but instead alleges executives and supervisors at the company acted with gross negligence in disregarding the danger of the pandemic and the risks associated with an outbreak inside the Waterloo plant.

Reade ruled those alleged actions are “not connected or associated in any manner with the directions of a federal officer. No federal officer directed Tyson to keep its Waterloo facility open in a negligent manner … or make fraudulent misrepresentations to employees at the Waterloo facility regarding the risks or severity of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 outbreak at the Waterloo facility.”

Reade also noted that despite the president’s order that the facility remain open, Tyson shut down operations at the Waterloo facility from April 22 to May 7, and also closed its plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Tyson is now appealing Judge Reade’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Fernandez is one of at least five workers at Tyson’s Waterloo plant who allegedly died due to COVID-19. The plant  is Tyson’s largest pork facility in the United States, employing approximately 2,800 people who process more than 19,000 hogs per day.

In November, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that the lawsuit filed by the Fernandez family included new allegations that Tyson supervisors had privately wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly coronavirus. Specifically, the lawsuit alleged plant manager Tom Hart had organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.

That claim generated national media coverage and resulted in Tyson hiring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegation of wagering. Four weeks later, Tyson fired seven plant managers in Waterloo based on the results of that investigation — although the company did not disclose the details of its findings.

The lawsuit filed by the Fernandez family alleges that while Tyson claims it needed to remain open to feed America, the company increased its exports to China by 600% during the first quarter of 2020.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.