Tyson workers’ suit alleging lack of COVID-19 safety measures dismissed

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By Brandi O. Brown, J.D. — With no hope of reviving their claims by amendment, a group of Tyson Foods employees saw their lawsuit alleging negligence and gross negligence against their employer, based on its alleged failure to take adequate safety measures during the pandemic, dismissed by a federal district court in Texas. Not only were their claims preempted by the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), they failed to sufficiently allege “knowing failures” by Tyson sufficient to overcome the state’s Pandemic Liability Protection Act (PLPA) shield. Even if they could amend their complaint to satisfy the requirements under the PLPA, they would still be preempted by the PPIA (Fields v. Tyson Foods, Inc., September 22, 2021, Barker, J.).

Contracted COVID-19. According to a group of Tyson Foods employees, after Texas issued stay-at-homme orders in response to COVID-19, their employer directed them to return to work at the meat-packing facility. However, they contended that when they did, the employer did not provide them with personal protective equipment and did not implement social-distancing guidelines. They alleged that this caused them to contract COVID-19.

Sued for negligence. They sued the employer for negligence and gross negligence, alleging that it failed to satisfy a duty of care to keep its premises in a reasonably safe condition and failed to exercise ordinary care to reduce or eliminate the risk of employees being exposed to the virus.

The meat-packing facility is subject to federal regulation under the PPIA, the court noted, and is subject to regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under the PPIA, the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service must inspect domesticated birds when slaughtered and processed into products for human consumption. The Act also requires the inspection of plant facilities to ensure sanitary conditions, provide for infectious-disease control, and regulate personal protective equipment.

Motions to dismiss. In December 2020, the employer moved to dismiss the employees’ first amended complaint, basing its argument on the PPIA’s express-preemption clause. On June 28, 2021, it filed a supplemental motion to dismiss, contending that the recently passed PLPA, enacted on June 14, was an additional ground for dismissal that was not available at the time it filed its first motion. The PLPA provides retroactive protections to businesses against damages lawsuits based on alleged exposures to COVID-19.

Failed to state claim for relief. Even construed in the light most favorable to the employees, their complaint failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted, the court concluded. First, it explained that the claims were preempted by the PPIA. That law contains an express-preemption clause, which provides that regulations promulgated by the FSIS override state requirements that are different or are in addition to those regulations.

In this way, the court explained, the clause was essentially the same as a nearly identical provision in the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the U.S. Supreme Court has found the FMIA preemption clause to be widely sweeping. The PPIA, the court explained here, “has a similarly broad reach.” That reach extends to common law duties and state-law tort claims, the latter of which the U.S. Supreme Court has frequently recognized as falling within provisions preempting state “requirements.”

Preempted by PPIA. Thus, the court concluded, the state-law tort claims alleged by the employees in this case fall “within the scope of” the PPIA and are preempted. The crux of the employees’ claims was that the employer failed to impose adequate safety measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in its facility, but the FSIS has promulgated several regulations that directly address the spread of disease.

For example, the FSIS has promulgated federal regulations concerning infectious diseases like the “disease control” regulation that requires that “any person who has or appears to have an infectious disease . . . must be excluded from any operations which could result in product adulteration and the creation of insanitary conditions until the condition is corrected.” It also has regulations that require facilities to monitor and document work-related conditions, regulations regarding employee clothing hygiene, notification requirements, and regulations relating to sanitation and hygiene procedures.

The duty of care alleged by the employees in their claims would impose requirements in addition to those authorized and promulgated under the PPIA, the court concluded, and therefore the claims were preempted by the federal law.

PLPA. Under the requirements of the PLPA, which generally shields corporations from liability if an individual suffers injury or death as a result of exposure to a pandemic disease during a pandemic emergency, individuals may only seek damages under certain circumstances. In order to survive dismissal, they have to plausibly allege that the employer either knowingly failed to warn them or remedy a condition it knew would expose them to COVID-19 or that it knowingly flouted government guidance applicable to the corporation. They also had to allege “reliable scientific evidence” showing Tyson’s conduct was the cause-in-fact of them contracting the virus.

However, the employees did not do this in their complaint, which pre-dated the PLPA. In this way, the court noted, their situation was similar to that of other Tyson employees who filed suit in another federal court in Texas, Wazelle v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 2:20-CV-203-Z, and like those employees, they failed to make the necessary allegations. They provided no “reliable scientific evidence” showing the employer was the cause-in-fact for them contracting COVID-19.

Amendment would be futile. Moreover, there was no point to the court allowing them to amend the complaint, as they requested, to cure those deficiencies under the PLPA requirements because, even if they did, “PPIA preemption would still independently foreclose the claims.”

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