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Verdicts & Settlements

Judge Tosses Coronavirus Safety Lawsuit Filed by Smithfield Workers

— May 8, 2020

In his ruling, the judge said that Smithfield’s already acted to improve worker safety.

A federal judge has discarded a lawsuit filed by workers at Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor. The lawsuit, broadly, accused Smithfield of failing to protect employees at its Milan, Missouri, plant from coronavirus. NBC News notes that the complaint was filed by the Rural Community Workers Alliance, a local advocacy group.

“Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die—all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic,” RCWA said in its initial complaint.

The Workers Alliance says that Smithfield, rather than buckling down on safety, has ramped up production amidst the pandemic and made employees work in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

However, U.S. District Judge Greg Kays, based out of Kansas City, Missouri, said Smithfield’s already shown initiative. The company has, for instance, already implemented many of the steps recommended by the Rural Community Workers Alliance to fight coronavirus, including regular symptom checks, temperature screens, and the installation of barriers along processing lines.

Meat products in a supermarket. Image via Flickr/USDA. Public domain.

Kays also referenced an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, which requires meatpacking plants to remain open throughout the pandemic’s course.

Because Trump’s issued orders and delegated guidance to other federal agencies, Kays says it’s not the court’s place to oversee or regulate working conditions.

“Plaintiffs are naturally concerned for their health and the health of their community in these unprecedented times,” Kays wrote. “The Court takes their concern seriously. Nevertheless, the Court cannot ignore the USDA’s and OSHA’s authority over compliance […] or the significant steps Smithfield has taken to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Plant.”

The Associated Press notes that the plant mentioned in the outbreak—located in Milan, Missouri—hasn’t seen workers infected by coronavirus en masse, as has been the case in other meatpacking plants in other parts of the country.

Milan’s Sullivan County has, for instance, only one documented coronavirus case.

But critics of the Trump administration fear that the president’s executive order requiring meatpackers to remain operational has given processors carte blanche to sideline workers’ safety.

David Muraskin, an attorney with the Rural Community Workers Alliance, said the group is disappointed with Judge Kays’ decision, but is happy the lawsuit seems to have inspired Smithfield to change some of its practices.

“We wish Smithfield would do more, but the decision shows that workers can organize and move companies to make changes, and that’s a really important development,” Muraskin said.

Smithfield, however, has praised Kays’ ruling and maintained that the RCWA’s lawsuit was largely “frivolous.”

“Importantly, the Court recognized the ‘significant measures’ Smithfield is taking to protect the health and safety of its employees,” the company said in a statement.


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