IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – The families of three workers who died after contracting the coronavirus during an outbreak at a meat factory in Iowa sued Tyson Foods and its top executives on Thursday for knowingly endangering workers and lied about keep them at work.
The lawsuit alleges that Tyson officials knew that the virus had spread to the Waterloo pig processing plant in late March or early April, but they were hiding that information from workers and the public.
As the outbreak grew, the company failed to implement safety measures, left some sick and exposed workers on the production line, and mistakenly assured workers and the public that the factory was safe, the suit claims.
“With these misrepresentations, Tyson was intended to mislead workers into the Waterloo facility … and induce them to continue working despite the uncontrolled COVID-19 factory outbreak and the health risks associated with work.” according to the lawsuit filed with the Black Hawk County District Court.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company was saddened by the dead and that “the top priority is the health and safety of our employees.” He said Tyson has implemented security measures that meet or exceed federal guidelines.
Meat packaging plants have been hot spots for the corona virus due to their busy conditions, causing several to be temporarily closed. Thousands of workers have been infected and several dozen have died.
The largest union representing meat packers said on Thursday that more than 14,000 workers at union factories were infected with coronavirus and 65 died.
Meat companies including Smithfield Foods and JBS USA and retailers such as Amazon and Walmart have been sued by families of workers who died of the corona virus. But the lawsuit filed against Tyson on Thursday may be the first involving multiple victims in one workplace during the pandemic, according to news reports.
Last week, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill protecting companies and health care providers from legal claims made by people exposed to the virus, with retroactive effect from January 1. But the law has exceptions for injuries that lead to hospitalization and death, and it seems unlikely that things will progress.
The lawsuit seeks damages for the estate of employees of Sedika Buljic, 58, who died on April 18; Reberiano Garcia, 60, died April 23; and Jose Ayala, Jr., 44, died on May 25. Lawyers for Waterloo, Tom Frerichs and John Rausch and the Spence law firm in Wyoming represent the families.
At least two other Waterloo workers have died after contracting the virus, which infected more than 1,000 of the factory’s 2,800 workers and devastated the wider community.
With rising illnesses, Tyson refused calls from local leaders to shut down the factory for several days and lobbied the governor to keep it open, the suit claims. Sheriff of the county. who visited the factory on April 10, said he was shocked to see workers in crowded conditions with no face covering and pressed Tyson to close.
The factory is Tyson’s largest pig factory and can process around 20,000 pigs per day.
Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the factory on April 20 in response to complaints and said earlier this month that no violations had been identified. The factory closed two days after the inspection and reopened in early May with new security measures.
In addition to compensation for pain and suffering and loss of income, the lawsuit seeks punitive damages to punish Tyson for an “ unrepentant, willful and willful disregard for workplace safety ” and to send a message to other companies.
The lawsuit mentions the company, as does chairman John H. Tyson, CEO Noel White, spokeswoman Liz Croston and several other executives and plant supervisors. Her claims included gross negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation.
John H. Tyson claimed in an April newspaper ad that the “food supply chain is breaking” due to factory closings and warned that customers would see meat shortages at supermarkets.
The lawsuit alleges that these warnings were exaggerated, noting that Tyson’s pork exports to China, including some from its Waterloo plant, increased significantly that month.
The lawsuit makes an explosive allegation that Tyson has previously denied: that the company had employees and subcontractors from another Iowa factory that was closed due to a coronavirus outbreak working in Waterloo in April.
Plant supervisors told employees their sick colleagues had the flu and warned them not to discuss the coronavirus at work, the suit claims. A man who vomited while on the production line was allowed to continue working, he claims.
AP news researcher Monika Mathur and reporter Stephen Groves contributed.
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