Law360 (February 1, 2021, 9:05 PM EST) -- A Pennsylvania federal judge has sent back to state court a suit accusing the world's largest meat processing company of causing a worker's COVID-19 death, saying a claim that the company violated federal health guidelines wasn't enough to keep the suit in federal court.
U.S. District Judge John R. Padova on Friday ended Brazil-based JBS SA's efforts to keep in federal court a suit accusing its Pennsylvania-based subsidiary JBS Souderton Inc. — which operated the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, meatpacking plant — of causing the death of worker Enock Benjamin due to alleged violations of U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations.
Benjamin came down with a cough and took time off from work starting March 27, and died in his home April 3. The suit, filed in May by Benjamin's son Ferdinand Benjamin and removed to federal court the following month, alleges JBS ignored OSHA guidelines instructing businesses to have sick workers stay at home and to issue personal protective equipment to keep workers safe while on the job.
Judge Padova on Friday rejected JBS' argument that because the suit alleges violations of OSHA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding social distancing and the use of PPE, federal question jurisdiction exists.
"Although we recognize the unprecedented difficulties the pandemic has caused, we see no reason to diverge from analogous, well-reasoned holdings in our district, particularly where, as here, the complaint is rooted in tort law and refers only to OSHA and CDC guidance," the judge said. "Therefore, we conclude that the fact that the complaint references OSHA and CDC guidelines is insufficient to 'necessarily raise' a federal issue."
The judge added that JBS has not met its burden of showing that a federal issue is actually in dispute since the complaint cites only federal health and workplace guidelines rather than any statutory or regulatory language.
Judge Padova also rejected the company's argument that the suit should remain in federal court because it involves former President Donald Trump's April 28 executive order declaring that meatpacking plants must remain open because they are critical infrastructure amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is unclear how the food supply chain order, issued weeks after Enock's death, is at all relevant to the instant matter," the opinion stated. "Plaintiff stated that he had no intentions of using the food supply chain order during this litigation because 'it didn't exist' prior to Enock's death. We, therefore, conclude that the mere existence of the food supply chain order does not convert plaintiff's state law tort claims against his employer and its affiliates into a 'substantial' federal issue."
Counsel for Ferdinand Benjamin, Robert Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC, told Law360 on Monday that he and his client are happy to have the case heard in Philadelphia County, where it was originally filed.
"The court recognized that this was clearly not federal question jurisdiction and that this is an ordinary state tort law case and should be in state court," the attorney said in a phone interview.
Mongeluzzi noted that every workplace in America is governed by OSHA regulations.
"Therefore if you believe the defendants' radical position, that would convert every workplace injury case into a federal claim, and would absolutely overwhelm the federal system, and that is not federal question jurisdiction," he said.
An attorney for JBS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Benjamin is represented by Robert Mongeluzzi, Steven Wigrizer, Jeffrey Goodman and Jason Weiss of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC.
JBS is represented by Molly E. Flynn, Mark D. Taticchi and Rebecca L. Trela of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
The case is Ferdinand Benjamin v. JBS SA et al., case number 2:20-cv-02594, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
--Additional reporting by Matthew Santoni and Rachel Scharf. Editing by Janice Carter Brown.
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