Implications on Workplace Safety Litigation in the Wake of Dismissed Claims Against Smithfield Foods

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

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— Updated on September 1, 2020

Implications on Workplace Safety Litigation in the Wake of Dismissed Claims Against Smithfield Foods

A U.S. district judge in Missouri recently dismissed a worker’s protection lawsuit filed by the Rural Community Workers Alliance. The suit alleged that Smithfield Foods, Inc, the world’s largest pork producer, failed to provide adequate workplace safety in its Milan, Missouri plant. In his opinion, Judge Greg Kays signaled that federal agencies are better suited to determine whether Smithfield’s meatpacking facility complies with relevant federal standards on health protections for workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

Allegations Against Smithfield

In the initial complaint, the plaintiffs claimed that the Smithfield had failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as outlined by OSHA. The complaint described individuals inside the plant without proper masks, a lack of social distancing protocols, and dangerously close quarters for employees working on the production line. The alleged conditions also included cramped areas where employees must clock in and out, no time allotted for employees to wash their hands during a shift, and bonuses for not missing a shift—essentially detering sick workers from staying home. The plaintiffs also claimed that Smithfield delayed giving employees masks until mid-April, asking workers to use “the same dirty mask throughout the week.”

The Plaintiff Argument: Public Nuisance Laws

The plaintiff’s case relied upon Missouri public nuisance laws defining the offense as “an offense against the public order and economy of the state and violates the public’s right to life, health, and the use of property, while, at the same time annoys, injures, endangers, renders insecure, interferes with, or obstructs the rights or property of the whole community, or neighborhood, or of any considerable number of persons.” Under this consideration, the plaintiffs argued that preliminary injunctive relief would be required to protect public health. They explained that since plant workers interact regularly with the outside community, their health and safety concerns extend beyond just facility property. Further, the plaintiffs asserted that individual workers faced increased risk of contracting the virus due to the company’s noncompliance with public health guidelines

Employee Demands for Justice

In this case, the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief in the form of a court order forcing Smithfield to comply with relevant guidance from both the CDC and OSHA to protect the individual workers inside the plant and the surrounding community. Employees expressed worry that the virus would spread amongst workers at the Milan facility. They also cited an outbreak of coronavirus at two other Midwest Smithfield locations that led to plant closures. The filing outlined employee demands for greater workplace safety including company-provided PPE, greater sanitation practices, and testing and tracing resources.

The Court’s Ruling

Judge Greg Kays based his dismissal largely on a lack of jurisdiction. He explained that the federal government is responsible for overseeing working conditions under President Trump’s executive order directing meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic, not the courts. Judge Kays pointed to both OSHA and the Department of Agriculture as the federal authorities to determine Smithfield’s compliance with required virus protections. In fact, OSHA had already opened an investigation into another Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that shuttered after an employee outbreak.

Judge Kays reasoned that if the court made such a determination it would only bind Smithfield but not other meatpacking facilities. This would potentially open a pandora’s box of inconsistent regulation across the food processing industry. With guidelines rapidly evolving, the court felt that a uniform source was the most prudent approach to regulatory guidance. Judge Kays also commented that an injunctive order would effectively hamstring Smithfield from quickly implementing protective measures necessary to the pandemic situation.

Lastly, the court found that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the presented merits. Judge Kays explained that the plaintiff argument fell short in equating a meatpacking plant in a pandemic to a public nuisance. He also found a lack of specificity in the injunctive relief request.

Implications for Other COVID-19 Workplace Safety Lawsuits

Though bringing this lawsuit under public nuisance law was a creative legal strategy, it’s not likely a viable legal strategy for future COVID-19 plaintiff cases. Employees or worker associations basing COVID-19 exposure allegations on public nuisance theories will especially have a hard time meeting the special injury criteria. The injury they claim to suffer is the same harm experienced by everyone else in a pandemic.  The federal government may also take further action to protect essential industries, such as meat processing, from COVID-19 related liabilities under additional executive orders. This would make plaintiff arguments even more difficult, whether using a public nuisance or other legal strategy.

Despite the Smithfield dismissal, there will no doubt be future cases where motivated counsel chooses to use the public nuisance approach. Plaintiff counsel in the Smithfield case laid out an important argument under the public-nuisance theory linking workplace safety and public safety. If the COVID-19 pandemic sees latent spikes down the road, judges across the U.S. may come to decide there is a judicial role in these cases, especially if there is evidence that federal agencies are not adequately protecting workers and communities.

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