Tyson Foods seeks liability release from U.S. Supreme Court over COVID deaths

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,406 views 

Tyson Foods filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday (July 22) seeking relief from liability stemming from four COVID-related deaths of its employees during the early days of the pandemic.

Officials with Springdale-based Tyson Foods have repeatedly said they complied with then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 Executive Order that required food processing plants to remain open during the earliest days of the pandemic. Tyson claims that since it was following a federal order, the company should be absolved from liability in several lawsuits filed in state courts by the families of employees who died from the virus.

Tyson argued that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions in supply and high consumer demand threatened to create national food shortages. The federal government responded by requiring private industry such as meat-processing facilities to remain open in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Tyson said it complied with the formal Executive Order and followed all the protocol provided from the regulatory agencies.

Four of Tyson’s employees in Iowa died from COVID-19 and their estates sued the meat giant in state court alleging the company violated its duty under state law by operating its plants and exposing workers to the virus. Tyson filed to have the state suits argued in federal court. However, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit sided with the families and remanded the case back to state court which has led to Tyson’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also, a May report from the Congressional Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis suggests meat industry execs lied about working conditions and the U.S. meat supply.

“While meatpacking companies – Smithfield and Tyson in particular – asserted that reduced plant operations and worker absenteeism were making the food supply chain ‘vulnerable,’ documents obtained by the Select Subcommittee suggest that this narrative lacked any basis in fact and show that others in the industry believed it was false. … Indeed, numerous public reports indicate that meatpacking companies had abundant inventory during this time – inventory that they could have used to supply domestic grocery shelves. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, meatpackers held 622 million pounds of frozen pork as of March 31, 2020—an amount well above levels predating the pandemic,” the report noted.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, R-S.C., and chairman of the select committee, said the industry pursued profit over protecting people.

“The shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated,” he said.

Tyson is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 8th Circuit ruling claiming it is out of step with basic logic underlying the situation. Tyson said it produces more than 20% of the nation’s daily supply of meat and poultry, feeding 60 million people each day through work by 120,000 workers at its U.S. plants.

The families of Sedika Buljic, 58; Reberiano Garcia, 60; and Jose Ayala Jr44 from Waterloo, Iowa first sued Tyson in state court after these employees died in April of 2020 and the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The family of Isido Fernandez also sued Tyson Foods for his death on April 26, 2020 from complications of COVID-19. All four of the deceased worked in the Waterloo pork processing plant owned by Tyson Foods.

Tyson said it closed the Waterloo plant in April 2020 and tested all of the 2,800 employees for COVID-19. Safety measures were implemented that met or exceeded federal guidelines at that time. Tyson said in April 2020, 44% of the plant employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Tyson also said it spent more than $540 million safeguarding against the spread of COVID-19 during 2020. Tyson must also overcome the fact that seven members of plant management in Waterloo were fired in December 2020 after court records showed they did not take COVID-19 seriously in the early days of the pandemic. The court uncovered the managers were taking wagers and gambling on the chances of who might become ill in the plant earlier that year.