KANSAS CITY, MO. – A US District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit that accused Smithfield Foods Inc. of failing to provide to workers adequate protections against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at the company’s pork processing plant in Milan, Mo.
The complaint filed with US District Court for the Western District of Missouri argued that Smithfield’s alleged failure to implement appropriate worker protections during the pandemic constitutes a public nuisance and is a violation of the right to a safe workplace under Missouri law. The plaintiffs sought an injunction to force Smithfield to comply with joint guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
However, US District Court Judge Greg Kays said in his ruling that the issue of worker safety is for USDA and OSHA to address.
“Plaintiffs are naturally concerned for their health and the health of their community in these unprecedented times,” Kays said. “The court takes their concern seriously. Nevertheless, the court cannot ignore the USDA’s and OSHA’s authority over compliance with the Joint Guidance or the significant steps Smithfield has taken to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue applauded the judge's decision.
“This ruling affirms that OSHA is the primary entity that has authority over worker’s safety,” Perdue said. “Since President Trump issued his executive order last week to keep these critical facilities operating, USDA has been working hand in hand with OSHA and the CDC to ensure meat processing facilities are abiding by Federal guidelines. This ruling is directly in line with what the federal government has been calling for companies and communities to do in light of the President’s executive order. If we continue to work together, we can maintain the critical supply of meat and poultry for Americans while also protecting worker health and safety.”
Kays added that he would not have granted an injunction against Smithfield because the plaintiffs had not demonstrated a threat of irreparable harm, among other reasons.
“The court is not unsympathetic to the threat that COVID-19 presents to the plant’s workers,” Kays said. “But in conducting its analysis, the court must determine whether plaintiffs will suffer an actual, imminent harm if the injunction is denied. This is not the same as analyzing whether employees risk exposure if they continue to work, and, unfortunately, no one can guarantee health for essential workers — or even the general public — in the middle of this global pandemic.
“But given the significant measures Smithfield is now taking to protect its essential workers from COVID-19 and the fact that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 currently at the plant, the court cannot conclude that the spread of COVID-19 at the plant is inevitable or that Smithfield will be unable to contain it if it occurs. Thus, plaintiffs have not established an immediate threat of irreparable harm.”
Smithfield vigorously denied allegations that the company wasn’t doing enough to protect workers at its processing plants. The company said it has been “proactively and aggressively tackling COVID-19 by implementing processes, protocols and protective measures throughout its operations and remains wholly committed to doing everything in its power to help protect its team members from COVID-19 in the workplace.”