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Family of Veteran Meat-Packing Worker who Died from COVID-19 Sues his Former Employer

May 22, 2020 - Industry News by Ashley B. Friedman

The family of  a veteran meat-packing worker who died from COVID-19 has filed a lawsuit against his former employer, JBS SA. Enock Benjamin,70, died on April 3, 2020 as a result of respiratory failure brought on by the novel coronavirus, according to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office. Benjamin worked at JBS’s Souderton, PA plant before he died. Ferdinand Benjamin, Benjamin’s son, who is represented by Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, filed the Complaint in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on May 7, 2020.

Benjamin’s family claims that Enock Benjamin contracted the novel coronavirus while working at the JBS plant in Souderton because JBS did not enact proper safety procedures nor take proper precautions to protect its workers from contracting the virus. The Complaint alleges that JBS failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment, such as masks, to their workers, forced their workers to work in tight quarters, and forced their workers to use cramped work areas, break areas, restrooms and hallways. In addition, the Complaint alleges JBS discouraged workers from taking sick leave such that sick workers feared they would lose their jobs and also failed to provide proper testing and monitoring for those who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. Further, JBS increased production during March 2020, adding a “Saturday Kill” to capitalize on increased demand caused by public panic purchases of ground meat, despite knowing the risks surrounding COVID-19. The Complaint alleges that “[b]y choosing profits over safety, JBS demonstrated a reckless disregard to the rights and safety of others, including Enock Benjamin.” Plaintiff’s claims include a wrongful death action, which alleges negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, and intentional misrepresentation, as well as a survival action.

The Souderton Plant ultimately closed on March 27, 2020, after multiple workers contracted COVID-19, but has since reopened. The case is another attempt to pierce the exclusive remedy provided by the Pennsylvania Worker’s Compensation Act. While there have been other attempts to pierce the exclusive remedy provision of the Act over the years, such attempts have, for the most part, failed. However, exceptions to the exclusive remedy provision were granted in Martin v. Lancaster Battery Co., Inc., 606 A.2d 444 (Pa. 1992) and in Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A.3d 851 (Pa. 2013). In Martin, the Court ruled that allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation of blood test results by the employer, which caused a delay in ameliorative treatment, which in turn resulted in the aggravation of a work-related injury, were not within the exclusive remedy of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. Martin, 606 A.2d at 447. The Court pointed out that the employer had made the fraudulent misrepresentation directly to the employee, as opposed to a third party, and noted that the employee was not seeking compensation for the work-related injury itself. Id., at 447. In Tooey, the Court ruled that the exclusivity provision of the Act did not preclude employees who had developed an occupational disease, Mesothelioma, more than 300 weeks after their last occupational exposure from seeking compensation for their injuries through a common law action against their employers. Tooey, 81 A.3d at 865. Whether Benjamin’s case falls within an exception to the exclusive remedy provision of the Act remains to be seen.

            While Benjamin’s lawsuit is among the first of its kind to be filed across the country, similar lawsuits can be expected to be filed as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Already, the family of  a meatpacking worker who died as a result of COVID-19 has filed a wrongful death action against the worker’s former employer, Dallas-based Quality Sausage Co., in Texas state Court. In addition, Smithfield Foods, Inc., was sued by employees at a rural Missouri pork-processing facility, who alleged that the company had not taken adequate steps to protect workers from the virus. However, U.S. District Judge David Gregory Kays declined to hear the case, saying it is up to OSHA and the USDA to oversee safeguards for workers. Still, it is likely that the number of lawsuits like Benjamin’s will only increase over the coming months.