This week, spouses of two individuals who died from COVID-19 filed a complaint against Pilgrim’s Pride, along with related defendants JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Packers Sanitation Services LTD, alleging that the defendants should have done more to protect its employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the complaint, which was filed in the Eastern District of Texas, the Plaintiffs purported that the companies “placed profits over safety.”
Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation is an American, multi-national food company, currently one of the largest chicken producers in the United States. JBS S.A., a Brazilian company, owns JBS USA Holdings, Inc., which is the majority owner of Pilgrim’s Pride.
Sybil Elijah, who worked for Pilgrim’s, is married to David Elijah, and brought the suit individually and as a representative of the estate of her deceased husband David Elijah. Ms. Elijah is the co-plaintiff of Rayford Brown, the spouse of now-deceased Pilgrim’s Pride worker Elnora Brown.
In their complaint, Ms. Elijah claimed that she contracted COVID-19 while working at the chicken plant and brought the virus home with her, causing her husband who had not left the home due to health to become infected and die. Mr. Brown, husband of Elnora Brown, alleged that his wife contracted COVID-19 at work which caused her death. Each claimed that the loss of a spouse has caused them to suffer loss and continue to suffer from a loss of companionship.
Both parties accuse Pilgrim’s Pride, along with its parent company JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Packers Sanitation Services, of misrepresenting the COVID-19 infection risk to its employees so that they would continue working at the plant. Additionally, the complaint alleges that the gross negligence of Pilgrim’s Pride, JBS, and Packers Sanitation caused the deaths of their spouses and injury to themselves. Purportedly, Pilgrim’s Pride was aware that employees at its Mt. Pleasant facility were sick with COVID-19 but did not warn other employees although they knew that the employees were working near each other without protection.
The complaint highlights this point, by alleging that the defendants had actual, subjective awareness of said risk but proceeded with a conscious indifference to the rights, welfare, and safety of others, and that any action taken on behalf of defendants was clearly too little and very late, the complaint said.
Further, the plaintiffs alleged that “hundreds to thousands of employees” stood “shoulder to shoulder” while working with meat on a conveyor belt and shared surfaces that were not cleaned according to recommended guidelines. The cold temperature used to prevent foodborne illness in the chickens also reportedly contributes to the high spread of COVID-19 among employees because the virus is able to survive longer in the air.
Both Ms. Elijah and Mr. Brown claim that the alleged misrepresentations and failure to implement other preventive measures in a timely manner led to the death of their respective spouses. “Despite this knowledge, the defendants did not warn workers that others at the Pilgrim’s Pride Mt. Pleasant Plant had become infected with COVID-19 and/or were displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” the complaint says.
Additionally, they alleged that the atmosphere and work demands cause frequent injury and created difficulties protecting themselves from COVID-19. “The frenzied pace and grueling physical demands of breaking down so many animals can make people breathe hard and make it difficult for them to keep masks properly positioned on their faces and clean,” the complaint said.
Employees were reportedly required to come to work despite an outbreak in Mt. Pleasant, with 675 confirmed cases in the city of 15,564 people. The plaintiffs each claimed that their spouse contracted COVID-19 through working near an employee who had recently contracted COVID-19 or was asymptomatic.
The complaint alleged that “the Defendants, individually and collectively, had responsibility for their employees’ safety and work conditions. Defendants acted with reckless disregard by reporting that Pilgrim’s Pride plants had taken proper timely precautions to prevent the spread of the virus among its own employees. Despite the clear and present danger the virus presented, Defendants kept the Plant open during the entire duration of 2020, even after hundreds of workers fell ill and others died.”
This case was filed after JBS received a fine for COVID-19 related workplace safety violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in September 2020 for violations at its beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, where six workers died and 290 tested positive for coronavirus through the end of July 2020.