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A federal appeals court on Thursday moved back to Iowa state court a lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc. over four COVID-19 worker deaths, finding the company can’t claim it was operating under the direction of the federal government when it tried to keep its processing plants open.
In March and April 2020, Tyson's Waterloo, Iowa, plant experienced a “significant COVID-19 outbreak,” with more than 1,000 infections among its 2,800 employees, according to documents in Buljic v. Tyson Foods, Inc., filed in the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Relatives of two of the four workers who died of COVID-19 allege in court documents that Tyson's executives and supervisors were aware of the outbreak yet “did not provide workers with sufficient face coverings or other protective equipment and that they did not implement or enforce sufficient social distancing measures,” among other allegations.
Documents state that “supervisors and managers allegedly denied the existence of confirmed cases at the facility and reportedly told employees that their sick co-workers had the flu.”
Meanwhile, county officials, who visited the Waterloo facility in April, “allegedly lobbied Tyson to close the plant,” court documents state.
Tyson had argued that its actions to keep its facilities open “were taken at the direction of a federal officer and that it has a colorable federal defense against the claims” due to the federal government’s order to keep meatpacking plants open in the pandemic.
In ruling that the case belongs in state court, the appeals court judge wrote that “Tyson has failed to show that it was performing a basic governmental task or operating pursuant to a federal directive in March and April of 2020” and that “Tyson was not ‘acting under’ a federal officer at the time that Plaintiffs' relatives contracted COVID-19 and is therefore not eligible for removal under the federal officer removal statute.”
Tyson Foods Inc. has terminated the employment of seven plant managers after an investigation into allegations that the managers were betting on how many workers at the company’s Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant would acquire COVID-19, Tyson announced Wednesday.