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Supreme Court denies Tyson Foods’ request to hear COVID death cases in federal court

By: - February 27, 2023 12:13 pm

An Iowa meatpacking plant had plastic dividers installed separating workers on the production line (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats).

This story was originally published by Investigate Midwest

The U.S. Supreme Court last week denied a petition by Tyson Foods’ lawyers requesting that wrongful death suits brought by the families of four Tyson employees who died of COVID-19 be heard in federal court.

Nearly three years after the employees of Tyson Foods’ Waterloo, Iowa, facilities died in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the family’s lawsuits have yet to be resolved.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the petition will send the issue back to the Iowa state court system, where some cases had been paused while lawyers awaited the Supreme Court’s decision.

Tyson lawyers filed the petition in July 2022, arguing that in staying open during the pandemic, the company was acting under instructions from former President Donald Trump and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that the case should be heard at the federal level.

The company cited an April 2020 executive order meant to keep meatpacking plants open during the pandemic as the impetus for their decisions. That executive order was drafted by Tyson lawyers and later signed by Trump.

The petition also repeatedly cited Tyson’s role in preventing a food shortage, which never came to fruition despite fears stoked by former Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan, according to internal meat industry emails. Sullivan retired in early 2021.

“In the midst of a national crisis, the federal government demanded the assistance of companies like Tyson to maintain the food supply,” the company’s lawyers wrote in the petition.

Tyson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although the federal government’s instructions went against those from local and state officials in some cases, the lawyers argued, Tyson chose to follow the federal guidelines. Therefore, the case should be decided in federal courts.

JBS, another major meatpacking company facing wrongful death cases over its handling of COVID-19 in its plants, has made similar arguments in court.

During the first two years of the pandemic, meat companies and USDA officials repeatedly pushed back against local health authorities, who wanted to temporarily close plants during periods of high contagion.

By Feb. 1, 2021, more than 1,100 Tyson employees in Waterloo had tested positive for coronavirus. At least seven workers died in Waterloo, according to data the company submitted to Congress.

Across the meatpacking industry, more than 86,000 workers contracted coronavirus and at least 423 died, according to Investigate Midwest’s tracking.

One of the cases that will continue in the state courts is Fernandez v. Tyson Foods, which made headlines in 2020 for revealing that Tyson managers had bet on how many workers would contract the coronavirus. The participating managers were later fired.

In its annual report to the Securities Exchange Commission, filed in November, Tyson Foods listed wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits among its business and operational risk factors.

“If we are unsuccessful in defending against such claims, we may experience significant losses and expenses in connection with these lawsuits, which could adversely affect our liquidity, results of operations and financial condition,” the annual report states.

Tyson is also involved in several antitrust and price-fixing lawsuits.

Adam Pulver, an attorney representing the families through his work at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said much of the recent proceedings in Iowa courts have dealt with whether the state courts or the Iowa Division of Workers Compensation are responsible for deciding the families’ compensation.

If handled by the Division of Workers Compensation, the families would be awarded a predetermined amount of money and Tyson would not be forced to pay punitive damages — additional fines assessed in order to punish defendants for their actions.

Few workers’ compensation cases involving meat companies’ liability for their workers’ deaths during the coronavirus pandemic have been decided in favor of the workers. In Feb. 2021, the Star Tribune reported that of 935 workers’ compensation claims filed by meatpacking workers in Minnesota, none had been paid out.

In May 2021, a Texas state administrative judge — in an apparent first — ordered that lost wages be paid to a former JBS employee who contracted COVID-19 on the job and missed three weeks of work.

If the cases move forward in the Iowa courts and result in discovery, the families’ lawyers would be able to interview Tyson executives under oath and collect other information.

Pulver said companies often draw out legal proceedings in order to wear down the plaintiffs and delay or avoid the discovery process.

“I think that’s part of the game here,” he said. “They don’t want to have to open up about what actually happened.”

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Madison McVan
Madison McVan

Madison McVan is a Report for America corps member who covers economic mobility for Minnesota Reformer. She previously covered agriculture for Investigate Midwest after graduating from the University of Missouri in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Latin American studies.