JBS Swift Pork faces wrongful-death claim that cites new congressional report

By: - June 1, 2022 3:06 pm

The family of the late Luciano Sican-Soloman (inset) is suing the JBS meatpacking plant in Ottumwa for wrongful death related to the pandemic. The lawsuit cites a new congressional report that indicates political appointees in the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked with industry officials to downplay the danger in meatpacking plants. The report includes an email, excerpted above, from an industry official about increased regulatory scrutiny that “seems to be cascading and our friends at USDA and the VP’s office are not able to stop it.” (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch, with photos from Google Earth and U.S. District Court records)

The family of an Iowa meatpacking plant employee who died from COVID-19 is suing JBS Swift Pork, alleging the company and other industry leaders ignored years of warnings about the threat a pandemic might pose to their workers.

The federal lawsuit is brought by the family of Luciano Sican-Soloman, a 23-year employee of the JBS Swift Pork meat processing plant in Ottumwa. Sican-Soloman died in May 2020 at age 57 due to COVID-19.

The lawsuit claims his death was the “predictable and preventable result” of the company’s decision to “ignore worker safety” and place “plant workers in the crosshairs of a global pandemic.” Named as defendants are JBS USA Food Co. and Swift Pork Co.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges the company failed to provide sufficient personal protective equipment to employees; forced employees to work in close proximity; forced employees into cramped and crowded work areas, break areas and restrooms; discouraged workers from using sick leave; and failed to provide adequate testing and monitoring for individuals who have may have been exposed to the virus.

As with other wrongful-death claims filed against Iowa meatpackers in the wake of the pandemic, the plaintiffs allege JBS established a work-while-sick policy by creating a points system that assigned demerits to employees who called in sick and awarded those who didn’t miss work with an extra $600.

The newly filed lawsuit also makes note of warnings that federal officials gave to the meatpacking industry as far back as 2008 when they determined a global pandemic could sicken or kill as many as 40% of meatpacking workers.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor warned that businesses with a “high population-density work environment” should stockpile personal protective equipment, such as masks, so each worker would have access to two masks per day for 120 days.

Six years later, a 2015 federal report indicated that the food and agriculture industry, including the meatpacking industry, still had “no overarching plan” to deal with a global pandemic.

In 2020, during the initial phase of the pandemic and leading up to Sican-Solomon’s infection, JBS allegedly instructed workers at the Iowa plant not to wear masks and failed to consider the health of high-risk workers by placing them on the plant’s front lines.

“Despite the clear and present danger the virus presented, JBS kept their facilities across the United States open or shuttered them only temporarily, even after hundreds of workers fell ill and others died,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit bases some of its allegations on a congressional report released two weeks ago by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. That report alleges American meatpacking companies, including JBS, worked with political appointees in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lobbied the White House to dissuade meatpacking workers from staying home or quitting.

The committee’s report notes that one JBS executive received an April 2020 email from a doctor in a hospital near the company’s Cactus, Texas, facility saying “100% of all COVID-19 patients we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family members of your employees,” adding that “your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open.”

JBS, the lawsuit claims, was tracking the number of workers at the plant suspected or known to have COVID-19 but kept that information hidden from workers at the plant while intentionally misrepresenting to workers it was safe to be in the plant.

JBS, a multinational corporation, is the world’s largest meat processor. The JBS Iowa plant has approximately over 1,000 employees and specializes in pork processing and packaging.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for gross negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation and wrongful death. The company has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. A representative of the company did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

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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.

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