COVID-19 Dangers In The Workplace: Meatpacking Safety Suit Tossed

Despite the backing of the high-powered ACLU, meatpacking workers who filed suit against their employer for claims that safety measures were not properly in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus have been blocked by a federal judge. 

U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard decided this month that the case, Alma et al. v. Noah’s Ark Processors LLC, will be dismissed. 

According to Law360, Gerrard said the workers don’t have a case because they no longer work for the Nebraska meatpacking plant in question.

“The people directly put at risk by Noah’s Ark’s alleged misconduct are the people who work there now, and the plaintiffs cannot assert their claims for them,” the judge said, according to Law360. “The ’emotional distress and fear’ the plaintiffs say they would suffer if their former co-workers caught COVID-19 won’t suffice to allow them to sue in their own right.”

The case was originally filed in November 2020 and involved four people against the company. The plaintiffs were described as “recent Noah’s Ark workers and members of the surrounding community,” including a woman who worked at the company until this past fall, another woman who worked there until late this summer, a man who worked there until this past fall and a pediatrician who treated the children of meatpacking workers. 

The complaint accused Noah’s Ark of ignoring safety protocols during the pandemic:

“Workers at meatpacking plants have been hit harder than almost any other industry.  Tens of thousands of meatpacking workers have become infected in major outbreaks at hundreds of plants across the country.  The outbreaks have spread among workers’ families, neighborhood, and towns, upending entire communities…

Defendant Noah’s Ark Processors… stands out for its refusal to take reasonable and obvious precautions to protect its workers and the community from a new surge of COVID-19 cases.   Despite the consensus that has emerged around these precautions, Noaha’s Ark has failed to implement them, even after is workers suffered a major wave of infections in April and May.”

The workers said they had to stand “shoulder to shoulder for hours at a time” and then sit in a “small windowless cafeteria” without masks on for lunch.  They also said they were in “the most dangerous possible environment” for spreading the virus.

In addition, they claimed the company didn’t offer adequate sick leave or offer onsite testing.

“All of these protections — distancing, masks, sick leave, testing — are basic and eminently feasible,” the complaint stated.  “Other plants are providing them.”

The plaintiffs said they alerted their managers of the problems multiple times, along with the plant’s nurse, who both “refused to address them.”

At least one worker at the plant died, and dozens others were sick with COVID-19, according to the complaint.  Some 49,000 meatpacking workers were infected from the coronavirus across the nation as of when the complaint was filed.

The complaint cited a “widespread consensus— among scientists, doctors, public health officials, and other experts” that the practices the plaintiffs were asking for “are necessary” to prevent COVID-19 from spreading through the factory.

Still, the fact that the plaintiffs no longer worked for Noah’s Ark appeared to be enough to have the judge toss the case.  He said the group will continue to encounter the possibility of COVID-19 spreading in their community, as it is essentially everywhere.

What’s more, the judge said the plaintiffs could not sue on behalf of their former co-workers. 

“The former-employee plaintiffs have been proceeding in this case pseudonymously because of possible retaliation, but the plaintiffs haven’t articulated any reason why current employees couldn’t do the same,” he said, according to Law360. “Even in the rare instances when litigants may assert the interests of others, the litigants themselves still must have suffered an injury in fact, thus giving them a sufficiently concrete interest in the outcome of the issue in dispute.”