Tyson Faces Pa. Lawsuit Over Worker's COVID-19 Death

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (December 18, 2020, 6:59 PM EST) -- The widow of a former Tyson Foods Inc. meatpacking supervisor has filed suit in state court alleging that lax safety measures at the Philadelphia plant where her husband worked resulted in his ultimately fatal case of COVID-19 in the spring.

Renata Barker said in a complaint on Wednesday that the Original Philly Cheesesteak Co., a facility which is owned and operated by Tyson in the city's Feltonville neighborhood, failed to provide workers with personal protective equipment or implement other safety protocols recommended by federal regulators when the pandemic first began spiking in March.

Instead, she said, the company opted to ramp up production in a move she said prioritized profits over workers' health and safety.

"Mr. Barker's death was the preventable result of defendants' decisions to ignore worker safety," Barker said in her complaint filed in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. "The defendants ignored federal guidance and put plant workers in the crosshairs of a global pandemic."

According to Barker's complaint, Tyson waited almost a month before bringing the Original Philly facility into compliance with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's guidance issued in March that companies provide surgical masks or respirators to employees who worked in close quarters.

She said that Tyson also opted to maintain a previously standing "work-while-sick" policy that penalized workers for taking time off due to illnesses.

Barker said that her husband Brian ultimately tested positive for the virus on April 7, five days after he was tasked by his employer with taking plant employees' temperatures — without the benefit of any personal protective equipment — as they reported for work.

According to Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC representing Barker, Tyson began performing temperature checks at the end of March or early April after several coronavirus cases were reported at the facility.

The complaint said Brian Barker was assigned the task of taking temperatures despite the fact that he had medical conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure, that put him at higher risk from the virus.

"The decision to have the individual who would be in most harm's way as somebody who was susceptible based on medical conditions is outrageous," Goodman told Law360 in an interview on Friday. "They took somebody who already met some of the criteria for being at-risk and decided to put him on the front lines."

April 2 turned out to be Brian Barker's last day at the plant, as the complaint said the facility was shut down the following day in the wake of a growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and complaints about the lack of PPE.

Brian Barker ultimately died on April 23 as a result of respiratory failure brought on by the virus, the complaint said.

Tyson is facing a growing number of lawsuits across the nation brought on behalf of meatpacking workers and their families from alleged coronavirus contagion in the workplace.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, a subsidiary of meatpacking giant JBS SA was slapped with a lawsuit in May alleging that a union steward at a Philadelphia-area plant contracted a fatal case of COVID-19 also as a result of lax safety precautions.

Goodman says he and his firm are in touch with a number of other families of meatpacking workers who contracted and died from COVID-19 and plan to bring additional suits both in Pennsylvania and beyond.

"We have received an alarming number of phone calls from families who lost loved ones, and we certainly intend to be filing cases," he said.

A representative for Tyson did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Friday.

Barker is represented by Robert Mongeluzzi, Steven Wigrizer, Jeffrey Goodman and Jason Weiss of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC.

Counsel information for Tyson was not immediately available.

The case is Renata Barker v. Tyson Foods Inc., case number 200701751, before the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Ellen Johnson.

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

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