Texas Family Files a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Tyson Foods for COVID-19
The family of a Tyson Foods employee who died from COVID-19 is suing his employer for wrongful death. This is one lawsuit in what is expected to be a wave of litigation filed by sickened employees who claim that their employer provided them with dangerous working conditions. Wrongful death is an exception that would allow employees' estates to file a lawsuit directly against the employer as opposed to taking workers' compensation death benefits. Even injured employees may file a negligence lawsuit if the employer's conduct reached to the level of gross negligence.
The Meatpacking Industry Has Been an Epicenter of the Coronavirus Outbreak
The meatpacking industry has unfortunately been a hotbed of coronavirus for employees. Between the fact that workers are in close proximity to each other and the poor protections provided by many employers, many thousands of workers have been sickened. Hundreds of factory employees have died from COVID-19.
The lawsuit allegations against many of these employers are similar. Nearly all of them claim that the employer took few if any steps to protect their employees from the virus. These allegations include not providing them with personal protective equipment such as masks and not taking the necessary steps to sanitize the workplace. Employers such as Walmart and McDonald's have been hit with these types of lawsuits.
In this particular lawsuit against Tyson, not only does the estate claim that the workplace was unsanitary, but it also alleges that the company would not let the employee call in sick when she was not feeling well. Instead, the complaint alleges that his supervisors forced her to come to work when she was unwell. In fact, Tyson's policy is not to give sick leave to its employees, and the company does not have a workers' compensation program. Here, the origin of her sickness was not COVID-19 but was a work-related injury.
Specifically, this employee tripped and injured her knee while she was on the job. She tried to get medical attention while she was at work, but the company was understaffed due to COVID-19, and she was not able to have her injury properly treated. When she was given first aid, her supervisors sent her right back to the plant floor. Then, the company would not let her stay at home because the company was already missing many workers who either stayed home or were ill. This placed right in the middle of a plant that was soon overcome by COVID-19. Numerous workers at this location were sickened.
The complaint states that the deceased was not provided with personal protective equipment by her employer as they were obligated to do by government guidance. The lawsuit argues that there is a pattern that suggests that Tyson's workers are coming down with COVID-19 at a much higher rate than the general public. At the time that the complaint was filed, the plaintiff claimed that over 4,500 company employees were sickened and 18 died. The lawsuit alleges that Tyson's behavior is so egregious that the family should also be awarded punitive damages.
When Can Employees Directly Sue Their Employer for Getting COVID-19 at Work?
When it comes to being able to sue an employer for injuries, there are exceptions to the rule that employees can only proceed through the workers' compensation system. One of the ways that employers can still sue for injuries is if the company acted with gross negligence. In other words, employers are only protected from plain negligence allegations.
Normally, gross negligence requires an additional showing beyond mere negligence. Stated differently, not only must the plaintiff prove that the employer was negligent, but they must also show an additional element. Usually, the additional facet of the case is that the employer must know of the consequences of their negligence ahead of time.
That may actually not be as difficult to prove as you would think. In the early days of the pandemic, widespread media reports told the public of the dangers of being in public without personal protective equipment. The earliest reports also indicated how highly contagious the virus is and the need to closely clean and sterilize. Thus, a complete failure on the part of the employer to do anything to keep their workers safe could very well be considered gross negligence. This could open employers up for numerous lawsuits unless they are able to persuade Congress to give blanket immunity to businesses from lawsuits.
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