Tyson Hit With Another COVID-19 Death Suit In Texas

By Rosie Manins
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Law360 (June 16, 2020, 8:28 PM EDT) -- The family of a longtime Texas meat factory worker who died from the novel coronavirus claims in a suit removed to federal court Monday that his employer Tyson Foods Inc. is responsible because it failed to take appropriate steps to protect its staff.

Jose Angel Chavez worked for Tyson Foods for over 20 years and died on April 17 from complications caused by COVID-19, according to the suit. His wife and three children sued the company, saying it disregarded his safety by failing to distance workers, provide personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves, check for symptoms, notify staff of infections or tell them to stay home when ill.

Their lawsuit is the third in Texas federal court against Tyson by families of meat plant workers who reportedly died from the coronavirus.

"Tyson Foods failed to protect its employees from the known dangers associated with the coronavirus," the Chavez family said in the suit. "As a result of the defendant's failure to use ordinary care, Jose Angel Chavez was infected with the coronavirus at work."

The Chavez family filed suit on May 18 in Shelby County District Court, alleging Tyson knew some staff were sick from the coronavirus yet didn't warn other employees or do anything to correct or prevent harm.

The family says they're owed exemplary damages because Tyson's negligence involved extreme risk, considering the likelihood of mass infection.

Little happened in the case before Tyson removed it to federal court, and Chavez family lawyer Patrick O'Hara of O'Hara Law Firm said he's not concerned about the venue change.

"It doesn't in any way increase the threshold that I have to meet," O'Hara told Law360 Tuesday. "I don't think it affects the value of the case, which is really what matters in the end for the clients. I think defendants feel more comfortable in federal court, for whatever reason."

Tyson Foods said in a statement to Law360 Tuesday that it is saddened by the loss of any worker and sympathizes with their family.

"Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, and we have put in place a host of protective steps at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19," the company stated.

In transferring the case to federal court, Tyson said the Chavez family did not request a jury trial and that their demand for over $1 million in compensation is another reason why federal court is an appropriate venue.

Other wrongful death suits were filed in Texas federal court against Tyson in May by the families of deceased Amarillo meat plant workers Pwar Gay and Camha Thi Vu, alleging at least 4,500 Tyson staff had contracted the virus since the pandemic began and at least 18 had died.

Those suits were dropped by the families on June 5 after Tyson Foods notified them that a different Tyson entity is the correct party to sue, the families' lawyer Vuk S. Vujasinovic of VB Attorneys told Law360 Tuesday, confirming he plans to refile.

"We represent several Texas families who lost loved ones due to COVID who worked for Tyson," Vujasinovic said. "Texas is unique, because Tyson chooses not to cover any of its Texas employees with normal workers' compensation insurance. Generally, this allows the Texas employees' families to sue Tyson rather than resort to the minimal workers' compensation benefits."

A finding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early May that around 5,000 meat plant workers had contracted the novel coronavirus and 20 had died prompted the federal agency to urge meat processing facilities to reduce the risk for staff.

The CDC's report on the issue came on the heels of an order by President Donald Trump, designating meat processors to be critical during the pandemic.

Tyson Foods is the largest meat processor in the U.S. and worked with the Trump administration on the order, saying coronavirus-related plant slowdowns or closures would lead to meat shortages.

Trump's order was denounced by workers' groups and Democrats, who warned of more sickness and death among meat factory staff.

The Chavez family is represented by Patrick O'Hara of the O'Hara Law Firm.

Tyson Foods is represented by Ann M. Painter, Mary Z. Gaston and Christopher S. Coleman of Perkins Coie LLP and Zachary T. Mayer and J. Edward Johnson of Mayer LLP.

The case is Chavez et. al. v. Tyson Foods Inc., case number 9:20-cv-00134, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

--Additional reporting by Kevin Stawicki and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Philip Shea.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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