Court Dismisses Coronavirus Safety Lawsuit Against Meatpacking Plant

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

May 14, 2020

A federal district court dismissed a lawsuit charging a Missouri meatpacking plant with failing to protect workers from the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The complaint filed by the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA) had sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Smithfield Foods.

The complaint filed by the RCWA had alleged that Smithfield Foods endangered workers and the surrounding community by failing to take adequate steps to prevent transmission of the virus at its Milan, Missouri, plant. Among their demands, the workers asked the court to require Smithfield to:

  • Provide masks;
  • Ensure social distancing;
  • Allow employees to wash their hands while on the line;
  • Provide tissues;
  • Change its leave policy to discourage individuals from working when they have symptoms of the virus;
  • Provide access to testing;
  • Develop a contact-tracing policy; and
  • Allow the RCWA's expert to tour the plant.

In its ruling, the court said that authority over how the plant complies with guidance for slowing the spread of the coronavirus lies with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), not the courts.

The court also noted that Smithfield had taken significant action to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant following the release of interim guidance for meatpacking plants by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including taking many of the steps demanded in the lawsuit.

Although no cases of COVID-19 had been found at the Milan plant, several large meat-processing plants have been discovered to be coronavirus hot spots, prompting concerns about whether they can be operated safely. Following the outbreaks, a presidential executive order was issued declaring meat processing an essential service and ordering the USDA to ensure the plants' safe operation.