At least six workers at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa died from COVID, and eventually Tyson shut the plant down. Last year surviving family members of four of the workers sued the plant managers and the company in Iowa state court, claiming that the defendants were negligent in failing to develop and implement adequate safety measures at the facility. The plaintiffs further claimed that the company lied to them about the level of risk and steps it was taking to keep workers healthy. For example, they claim Tyson falsely told them that sick or symptomatic workers would be sent home immediately and would not be permitted to return until cleared by health officials.
The company responded to the state court complaint by claiming it was acting under the direction of the federal government because certain government officials had declared that meat-processing facilities were “critical infrastructure” and should maintain their normal operations. Thus, it argued, the case should be heard in federal court. A federal district judge disagreed and remanded to state court, but Tyson has appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which recently ordered oral argument on the appeal. Several states have filed friend of the court briefs supporting the plaintiffs, as has the federal government.
Seeking Workers’ Justice
The case is vitally important to workers seeking justice for their employers’ negligence in exposing them to COVID. If the appellate court sides with the company on the procedural question of where the case will be tried, it will in effect recognize “the feds told me to do it” as a valid defense. The argument may seem arcane, but it could be deadly for those who seek to hold their employers to account for mishandling COVID in the workplace.
The key is a federal statute that allows a defendant to remove a case to federal court if a claim is brought against someone who was acting under the direction of a federal officer to perform federal tasks. To succeed on a motion to remove, a defendant has to show (1) that it was acting under the direction of a federal officer, (2) that there was a causal connection between its actions and the official authority being asserted, and (3) that it has a colorable federal defense to plaintiffs’ claims. In Tyson’s case, the federal defenses asserted fell under the Defense Production Act (“DPA”) and the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
An Impactful Ruling for Employees
So, what at first blush may appear to be a mere procedural dispute about jurisdiction could result in a ruling that would support a DPA defense for any “critical infrastructure” employer that negligently exposed its employees to COVID. The Eighth Circuit has not yet ruled, but the case bears watching for what it might portend for employees who seek justice for the COVID-related harm they’ve suffered because of the callous indifference and negligence of some employers. Our team will be monitoring developments in the case; keep an eye out for updates in our future blog posts.