Meatpacker Sued In 1st Virus-Related Death Case In Pa.

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (May 7, 2020, 12:23 PM EDT) -- ​​In what attorneys say is a first-of-its-kind case in Pennsylvania, the family of a deceased JBS SA meatpacking worker filed suit in state court Thursday alleging that unsafe conditions at a company plant outside of Philadelphia resulted in him contracting a fatal case of COVID-19.

The family of Enock Benjamin, who served as a union steward at a plant in Montgomery County, said JBS promoted the spread of the coronavirus by forcing employees to continue working in close proximity without adequate protective equipment for weeks after both state and federal officials started sounding alarm bells about the disease in March.

"Enock Benjamin's death was the predictable and preventable result of the JBS defendants' decisions to ignore worker safety," Benjamin's family said in their complaint. "The JBS defendants ignored federal guidance and put plant workers in the crosshairs of a global pandemic."

Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC representing Benjamin's family, said JBS management had failed to take any timely steps to prevent the virus from spreading in its plant.

"During this March timeframe, there were numerous workers that reported being sick at the plant and there was no direction whatsoever at the corporate level for what to do in those situations," he told Law360.

According to the complaint, the JBS plant in Souderton employs some 1,400 workers and is touted by the company as the largest beef processing facility east of Chicago.

But while businesses began closing their doors in mid-March in adherence with government orders issued in response to the rapidly rising number of coronavirus infections, the complaint said JBS added extra shifts — in the form of a new "Saturday kill" — to take advantage of the rising demand for beef sales at the time.

At the same time, however, the complaint said JBS ignored guidance from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration instructing employers to encourage sick workers to stay home and to provide personal protective equipment to keep workers safe while on the job.

The complaint said JBS was ultimately forced to close the plant at the end of March for cleaning after multiple workers ended up contracting the virus.

It was only when the plant reopened in April that JBS began mandating the use of masks and other PPE for its workers, Goodman said.

"This plant was working into late March without providing any kind of face masks, without taking any steps directed at physical distancing of workers, without taking temperatures, without doing testing of any kind," Goodman said. "The only PPE that the workers in this plant had were gloves because they're working with raw meats, and ear protection because of the loud noises. There wasn't a single additional piece of protection provided."

The complaint said Benjamin took leave from work beginning on March 27 after coming down with a cough, and that his condition worsened over the following week to the point that he was nearly unable to breath.

His son ultimately called paramedics on April 3, but Benjamin died in his arms before the ambulance arrived, according to the complaint.

The complaint levels claims of negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation regarding the safety of working conditions at the plant, and wrongful death.

A spokesperson for JBS did not immediately return messages seeking comment Thursday morning.

The plaintiffs are represented by Robert Mongeluzzi, Steven Wigrizer, Jeffrey Goodman and Jason Weiss of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is Ferdinand Benjamin v. JBS SA et al., case number 200500370, before the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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