Tyson Worker's Family Vows To Press 'Stronger' COVID Suit

By Jon Steingart
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Law360 (August 10, 2020, 4:03 PM EDT) -- The family of a Tyson Foods meat plant worker who died after contracting COVID-19 has dropped their suit against the food giant in Texas federal court, but their attorney told Law360 Monday they will be filing a "stronger" version of the case in the future.

Jose Chavez's wife and children filed a notice of dismissal on Aug. 7, less than two weeks after Tyson lodged a motion to have their suit, which accused the company of not doing enough to stop the virus' spread, thrown out.

"The case is stronger today than when it was filed earlier this year," Patrick O'Hara, an attorney for the family, told Law360. "We will refile at a later date."

Tyson's July 30 motion to dismiss argued that the family's claim that Chavez contracted COVID-19 "at work" doesn't connect his illness or his death to any action on Tyson's part. It also argued that some claims are barred by President Donald Trump's April 28 executive order designating meat plants as vital to the nation's economy during the pandemic and long-standing federal rules regulating poultry plants.

"The coronavirus pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to governments, businesses, and organizations around the world," the company's motion said. "Tyson Foods has responded to those challenges, working to meet or exceed federal workplace guidelines to mitigate risks and protect worker safety."

Chavez's wife, Maria, and their three children filed suit in May in Texas state court, and the company removed the suit to federal court the next month. They alleged that Tyson neglected its duty to keep employees safe by failing to maintain social distancing, provide personal protective equipment, tell workers not to come to work if they are sick, check workers for symptoms before a shift, warn them if someone at the job site contracted the virus and close the plant for a time.

Tyson conveyed its condolences to Chavez's family in a statement emailed to Law360 Monday.

"We are saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with the family at this difficult time," the statement said. "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 [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guidance for preventing COVID-19."

The suit against Tyson is one of several worker safety suits tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two food production worker unions cited concerns over the virus in a July lawsuit alleging that the Department of Agriculture let the companies put poultry processors in harm's way when it excused Tyson and other companies from limits on plant speeds.

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

Tyson is represented by Christopher Coleman, Mary Gaston and Ann Marie Painter of Perkins Coie LLP, and Zachary Mayer and J. Edward Johnson of Mayer LLP.

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

--Editing by Jack Karp.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Tyson.

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

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