Spouses of two individuals who died from COVID-19 alleged in a Texas Eastern District Court complaint on Wednesday that Pilgrim’s Pride, along with related defendants JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Packers Sanitation Services LTD, should have done more to protect its employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. They purported that the companies “placed profits over safety.”
Sybil Elijah, wife of David Elijah, claimed that she contracted COVID-19 while working at the chicken plant causing her husband who had not left the home due to health to become infected and die. Rayford 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.
The complaint purported that the gross negligence of Pilgrim’s Pride, JBS, and PSSI 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.
“Defendants had actual, subjective awareness of said risk but proceeded with a conscious indifference to the rights, welfare and safety of others. Any action taken on behalf of Defendants was … clearly too little and very late,” the complaint said.
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.
Additionally, they purported 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.”
The plaintiffs, represented by Shrader & Associates L.L.P., asked the court for a judgement of damages including expenses for medical treatment and , pre and post-judgment interest, and fees associated with the lawsuit.
JBS received at least one other complaint alleging its response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused the death of an employee. The company also received a fine for COVID-19 related workplace safety violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.