The complaint said meat processing and packaging plants are particularly susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases.
The family of a meat processing plant worker who died last month from COVID-19 has sued the company, alleging it failed to take proper safety precautions as the highly contagious coronavirus began to bear down on the country.
On Thursday, the family of Enock Benjamin, who died at 69, filed suit in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against JBS S.A. and several subsidiaries, including Pilgrim’s Pride. The Brazil-based meat processing company is one of the largest in the world.
Similar litigation has already been filed across the country over claims that employers failed to properly protect workers from the coronavirus, but the Benjamin lawsuit is the first such case to be filed in Pennsylvania.
The action was filed on behalf of Benjamin’s family by lawyers at Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, including Robert Mongeluzzi, Steven Wigrizer, Jeffrey Goodman, and Jason Weiss.
Representing the Benjamin family is a team of lawyers who spearheaded the Salvation Army building collapse litigation, which in 2017 ended in a record-setting $227 million settlement in Philadelphia.
The lawsuit raises claims not only against managers at the Souderton, Pennsylvania, plant where Benjamin worked, but it also alleges negligence all the way up the chain of the JBS network of companies, arguing that the parent company should also be held liable for Benjamin’s death.
Wigrizer said the evidence is clear that liability for Benjamin’s death reaches far beyond the plant where he worked.
It had to be top down, and we are very comfortable with that assertion. We feel certain that the folks at ground zero did not make a move without guidance from the parent companies
According to the complaint, Benjamin began working at JBS Souderton Inc., which has about 1,400 employees, in 2008.
The complaint said meat processing and packaging plants are particularly susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases because of the close proximity in which employees work, and the extremes of the environment, including some parts that are hot, others that are freezing, and other areas where it is damp. Further, the complaint contended that JBS flouted the safety guidelines for profit, and promoted a culture where employees were encouraged to work while sick for fear of losing their jobs.
Specifically, the complaint noted that on March 9, two federal agencies—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—published guidelines instructing companies about how to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus through their facilities. However, the complaint alleged the company disregarded those guidelines, continuing to have workers operating in close proximity, failing to provide proper personal protection equipment, and even ramping up production with a “Saturday kill” to help the company meet increasing demand for ground beef.
According to the complaint, the company did not shut any plants until March 30, despite the virus being “firmly established” in the Souderton plant by early March. The complaint further said that, as of April 2, 19 employees from the plant tested positive.
Benjamin’s last day on the job was March 27, after he left showing coughing symptoms, the complaint said. The symptoms worsened over the next few days, and by April 3, Benjamin was unable to breathe, the complaint said. Although Benjamin’s son called an ambulance, according to the complaint, Benjamin died in his son’s arms while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
The lawsuit alleges negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, intentional misrepresentation, and wrongful death, and pursues a claim under the Survival Act.
Wigrizer said he expects the defendants will try to argue that, since Benjamin allegedly contracted the disease at work, the case should be handled through the workers’ compensation system. However, he said Benjamin only had an employee relationship with JBS Souderton, and not any of the other defendant companies. He also said claims that the company misled its workers should make it even more clear that the case should be litigated in common pleas court.
“We intend to bust that provision because the company made intentional and fraudulent misrepresentations about not only the safety of the plant but the conditions of fellow workers, concealing the fact that there were other workers who had come down with COVID-19,” he said.
A spokeswoman for JBS did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday morning.