Law360 (July 31, 2020, 9:04 PM EDT) -- Tyson Foods has told a federal judge in Texas it can't be held liable for the death of one of its employees in a lawsuit brought by the man's family because the relatives can't prove he contracted COVID-19 at the chicken processing plant where he worked.
In a motion to dismiss filed Thursday, Tyson Foods Inc. told U.S. District Judge Ron Clark that the family of Jose Angel Chavez, who worked at the company's poultry processing plant in Shelby County for more than 20 years, failed to rule out other possible causes of the infection.
Chavez's wife and three children filed suit on his behalf on May 18, alleging that despite knowing some staff were sick from the coronavirus, Tyson did nothing to warn other employees or prevent harm to them. They allege Chavez died on April 17 from complications caused by COVID-19.
Tyson argued the "conclusory allegations" brought by the family allege Tyson is responsible for Chavez's death for failing to shut down or provide more stringent protective measures. But that leaves the court to "speculate that the absence of those measures caused Mr. Chavez to contract COVID-19," the motion said.
"The complaint does not allege any particular incident of exposure occasioned by alleged negligence," Tyson told the court. "The complaint simply argues that Mr. Chavez got infected because he worked at Tyson. Without more, this case must be dismissed."
Tyson argued it has "aggressively responded" to the threat of COVID-19 and has met or exceeded all federal workplace guidelines.
Even if the family linked Chavez's infection to the processing plant, Tyson told the court the claims are preempted by the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act. The federal law "expressly preempts" any state law requirements that differ from federal regulations, Tyson asserted.
The operation of poultry processing plants like the one where Chavez worked, including the control of infectious diseases, is "expressly and exclusively regulated by the PPIA," the company argued.
"Therefore, state requirements regarding the control of infectious disease in poultry processing facilities — including the common-law duty asserted by the plaintiffs in this case — are preempted," Tyson said.
The parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
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 Rosie Manins, Kevin Stawicki and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Daniel King.
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