Labor & Employment Law Daily JBS named in wrongful death suit alleging COVID-19 infection under unsafe work conditions
Monday, May 11, 2020

JBS named in wrongful death suit alleging COVID-19 infection under unsafe work conditions

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

Instead of following CDC and OSHA guidelines, JBS purportedly ramped up production without implementing safety measures in order to capitalize on panic-motivated increased demand for ground meat, according to the complaint.

On May 7, the estate of an employee who died on April 3 of alleged respiratory failure caused by COVID-19 filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Pennsylvania state court against giant beef processing company JBS and its affiliates (JBS), contending that the employee’s death resulted from his contracting the coronavirus while working at a JBS plant under unsafe conditions without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The employee, who worked at the JBS slaughterhouse in Souderton, Pennsylvania, was also a union chief steward.

The five-count complaint raises claims of wrongful death, negligence, and fraudulent misrepresentation, among others. It is said to be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, although similar suits have been filed in other states.

Unsafe conditions. The estate contends that despite the known risks about COVID-19, prior to shutting down the plant on March 30, 2020, JBS:

  • Failed to provide sufficient PPE;
  • Forced workers to work in close proximity;
  • Forced workers to use cramped and crowded work areas, break areas, restrooms, and hallways;
  • 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 been exposed to COVID-19.

Ramping up production. Instead of taking safety measures at the facility where the employee worked, JBS increased production during March 2020, adding a “Saturday Kill” “to capitalize on increased demand caused by public panic purchases of ground meat,” according to the complaint. During this critical timeframe in March 2020, the employee allegedly contracted COVID-19 while working at JBS Souderton because the company “inexplicably failed to take proper safety precautions to protect workers.”

Safety guidance ignored. The estate alleges that 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.” Workers at the JBS plant were purportedly still required to work within six feet of one another, despite CDC and OSHA guidance otherwise. Nor were workers required to report to their superiors if they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, according to the complaint.

Deadly coronavirus contracted at work? When the employee last arrived for work at the JBS plant on March 27, 2020, “a number of his coworkers had already become infected,” the estate contends. On that day he allegedly left work after experiencing cough-like symptoms. “Over the next week, the employee’s condition continued to worsen and breathing became nearly impossible,” the complaint states. On April 3, the employee’s son purportedly called EMTs to assist the employee, who was unable to breathe, but he died in his son’s arms before the ambulance arrived.

The complaint states that an autopsy report confirmed that the employee died from respiratory complications related to COVID-19.

Predictable, preventable outcome. According to the complaint, the employee’s death “was the predictable and preventable result of the JBS Defendants’ failures to consider the safety of their workers.” Further, they “knew, or in the exercise of a reasonable degree of care, should have known that if OSHA and CDC guidance were not followed, workers would become infected with and could succumb to COVID-19.” But instead, the JBS purportedly “placed profits over safety.”

The complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages, interest, and “allowable costs of suit.”

Right before the plant slowed production for cleaning on March 30th, “it demonstrated that it was out to make a killing in the beef market with meat for consumers becoming scarce,” according to Steven G. Wigrizer, one of the attorneys representing the estate. “While it could have devoted weekends to disinfecting the plant (located at 249 Allenton Rd., Souderton) following federal guidelines, JBS instead added what it called a ‘Saturday Kill’ to increase production and its bottom line.”

Said Jason Weiss, another attorney representing the estate: “The conditions that JBS workers were exposed to are repulsive. There is no question that the unsafe working environment should have been modified to adhere to CDC recommendations. Instead, workers were forced to choose between two horrific alternatives: work literally alongside those likely infected or be unable to support their families.”

The lawsuit, Estate of Enock Benjamin v. JBS S.A., was filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas; the case is No. 200500370.

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