May 06, 2020

Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Meat Processing Plant Related to Alleged COVID-19 Issues

On May 5, 2020, United States District Judge Greg Kays issued an order dismissing a federal lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, Inc. and Smithfield Fresh Meats Corp. (collectively, “Smithfield”) related to alleged COVID-19 issues at Smithfield’s Milan, Missouri meat processing plant. The lawsuit, filed on April 23, 2020, by Rural Community Workers Alliance, a nonprofit group and an unnamed plant employee, alleged that Smithfield failed to adequately protect plant workers, and the community generally, from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The plaintiffs alleged state-law claims for public nuisance and breach of duty to provide a safe workplace and sought injunctive relief. On April 26, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued joint guidance entitled Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers – Interim Guidance. Plaintiffs characterized their request for injunctive relief as seeking to force Smithfield to comply with this federal joint guidance.

The Court dismissed the case without prejudice under the primary jurisdiction doctrine. Specifically, the Court held that Smithfield’s compliance with COVID-19 guidance and regulations fell squarely within the jurisdiction of OSHA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Court also observed that determining whether Smithfield was complying with the OSHA-CDC joint guidance could result in inconsistent regulation of other meat processing plants, including those in other jurisdictions. The Court emphasized that this problem is particularly acute because COVID-19 guidance is rapidly changing. Ultimately, the Court reasoned that judicial intervention in this lawsuit “would only risk haphazard application of the [OSHA-CDC] Joint Guidance,” and, therefore, dismissed the lawsuit. The Court also stated that, even absent dismissal, it would have denied plaintiffs request for injunctive relief because plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of proof.

This order provides important insights for the meat processing industry considering the rapidly evolving legal and regulatory landscape related to COVID-19. This order also highlights the importance of monitoring new CDC, OSHA and USDA guidance.

As the number of cases around the world grows, Faegre Drinker’s Coronavirus Resource Center is available to help you understand and assess the legal, regulatory and commercial implications of COVID-19.

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