May 6, 2020Client Alert

Court Dismisses Lawsuit Accusing Company of Putting Meat Processing Plant Workers at Risk of COVID-19 Virus

A federal judge in Missouri dismissed a highly-publicized lawsuit accusing meat processor Smithfield Foods, Inc. of putting its workers at risk of contracting COVID-19 by not taking adequate steps to prevent transmission of the virus at its Milan, Missouri plant (the Plant). A copy of the Order, issued yesterday, is here.

The judge rejected the workers’ claims based upon the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, which allows a district court to refer a matter to an appropriate administrative agency for ruling. Here, the judge found the doctrine was applicable, insofar as the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were deemed to be in the best position to make a determination about compliance.

“If the Court ruled on whether the Plant is complying with the Joint Guidance, this ruling would be binding on Smithfield but not other meat-processing facilities because the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them. Thus, any determination by this Court whether the Plant is complying with the Joint Guidance could easily lead to inconsistent regulation of businesses in the same industry. And under these circumstances, where the guidelines are rapidly evolving, maintaining a uniform source for guidance and enforcement is crucial.”

The judge also found that even if primary jurisdiction did not apply, he still would not grant the workers’ request for a preliminary injunction, which he indicated is an “extraordinary remedy.” Specifically, he found their allegation that the workers could potentially contract COVID-19 which could result in serious illness or death “too speculative” under binding precedent:

"… given the significant measures Smithfield is now taking to protect its essential workers from COVID-19 and the fact that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 currently at the Plant, the Court cannot conclude that the spread of COVID-19 at the Plant is inevitable or that Smithfield will be unable to contain it if it occurs. Thus, Plaintiffs have not established an immediate threat of irreparable harm."

This is one of the first of what are expected to be many decisions that will be issued by courts across the country addressing the liability of employers for safeguarding their workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Michael Best will continue to keep its clients and friends apprised of the many developments in this area.

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