Law360 (November 19, 2020, 10:28 PM EST) -- Tyson Foods said Thursday it had suspended top officials at a facility in Iowa over allegations in amended federal lawsuits from the estates of four workers who died of COVID-19 that the leaders organized a betting pool on how many employees would contract the virus as it spread through the workforce.
The lawsuits accuse the company, its top executives and the Waterloo plant's managers and supervisors of repeatedly lying to their employees and knowingly risking their health in March and April. The leaders made negligent and reckless decisions that resulted in over 1,000 infected employees at the facility and five deaths, according to the lawsuits.
Around the time in April that the sheriff of Blackhawk County and other local officials were lobbying Tyson to close the plant, its manager and co-defendant Tom Hart "organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19," according to the suits.
The two lawsuits were both filed in Iowa state court before being transferred to the Northern District of Iowa. One lawsuit was filed by the estates of three deceased Tyson workers, and a second was filed by the son and estate of Isidro Fernandez, who died from COVID-19 on April 26.
The Fernandez suit was amended on Nov. 11, and the other was amended on Wednesday. The suits share the same legal representatives and include similar accusations.
The Waterloo facility is Tyson's largest pork plant in the United States and employs around 2,800 workers who process approximately 19,500 hogs per day, according to the lawsuits.
The betting pool was among a long list of accusations outlined in the suits against Tyson and its leaders, including that supervisors permitted or encouraged workers with symptoms or suspected of being infected to keep working, that they failed to take basic precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19, and that they showed complete disregard of the plight of sick employees.
The plant was shut down on April 22 because of the outbreak and reopened May 6, according to the lawsuits, which bring causes of action for fraudulent misrepresentation and vicarious liability against the company, gross negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation against a group of supervisors and gross negligence against a group of executives including Tyson Foods chairman John H. Tyson and president Dean Banks.
Banks issued a statement Thursday that said the company suspended an unspecified number of individuals "allegedly involved" and retained the firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an independent investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
"If these claims are confirmed, we'll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company," Banks said.
Banks added, "Our top priority is and remains the health and safety of our team members. We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars to transform our U.S. facilities, including the Waterloo plant, with protective measures, from walk-through temperature scanners and workstation dividers to social distance monitors and always-on testing."
According to the suits, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson and Black Hawk County health officials visited the Waterloo facility on April 10. Thomson said "working conditions at the Waterloo Facility 'shook [him] to the core.' Workers were crowded elbow to elbow; most without face coverings," the plaintiffs allege.
One employee who vomited on the production line was allowed him to keep working, while co-defendant John Casey, a top manager, explicitly "directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19," according to the suits.
Casey "told supervisors they had to show up to work, even if they were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and he directed supervisors to make their direct reports come to work, even if those direct reports were showing symptoms of COVID-19," the suits allege, adding that Casey once "intercepted a sick supervisor en route to get tested and ordered the supervisor to get back to work, adding, 'We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.'"
Even though two dozen employees had been admitted to the emergency room on April 12, plant leaders publicly denied on April 16 that there had been an outbreak at the facility, according to the suits.
Tyson also transferred workers to the Waterloo facility from its Columbus Junction plant after it was shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak, but did not test or quarantine the workers before allowing them to enter the Waterloo plant, according to the suits.
While its employees were getting sick and some were dying, Tyson leaders concerned themselves with pressuring federal and state political leaders for protection, including from President Donald Trump, according to the suits.
Tyson officials dined at the White House and spoke on the phone with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in March and April before Trump signed an executive order on April 28 classifying meat processing plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open, according to the suit.s
Counsel for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The plaintiffs are represented by Thomas P. Frerichs.
Tyson and the other defendants are represented by Kevin J. Driscoll of Finley Law Firm PC.
The cases are Sedika Buljic et al v. Tyson Foods, Inc et al, case number 6:20-cv-02055, and Oscar Fernandez v. Tyson Foods, Inc et al, case number 6:20-cv-02079, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.
--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.
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