Tyson employees’ COVID lawsuit reinstated

A federal appeals court reinstated a civil case from Tyson Foods employees who claim they were put in danger of contracting COVID during the early stages of the pandemic.

The meat giant was sued in state court by a group of 41 Tyson workers and the estate of a worker who died of COVID. Tyson argued it was keeping its plants open pursuant to an April 2020 order from President Donald Trump intended to prevent shortages, and therefore the case should be heard in federal court. A federal judge in Texas dismissed the case in June 2021, ruling that the plaintiffs did not do enough prove the company was responsible for their illnesses, pursuant to Texas law.

In the ruling reinstating the case, the appeals court said the federal government’s order to keep meatpacking facilities open during the early months of the pandemic was not binding. The appellate panel also ruled the district judge should reconsider letting the case be heard in the state court.

The appellate court said Tyson did not have “federal officer removal jurisdiction” — a federal law that allows some claims against government contractors to be heard in federal courts rather than state ones.

“We concluded that Tyson was not acting under direction of the federal government and that federal officer removal jurisdiction thus did not exist over claims materially identical to those at issue here,” the court said.

The employees claimed in their lawsuit that by keeping its Amarillo, Texas plant open in the early months of the pandemic, Tyson behaved with gross negligence toward employees and was responsible for wrongful death. The employees also claimed Tyson did not provide proper safety equipment to workers.

Thousands of meatpacking workers tested positive for the virus in 2020, leading to temporary closures of a dozen Tyson factories, among many other meat facilities whose production was halted.

Tyson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was not only criticized, but led to leadership changes. Seven managers were fired by the company after it was revealed they had conducted a betting pool to wager how many employees would contract the virus.

The response of the meat industry during the early months of the pandemic has continued to draw scrutiny this year. A 61-page House subcommittee report in May said Smithfield Foods and Tyson used “baseless” claims of a supply shortage to justify operating during the most dangerous part of the pandemic.