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Pilgrim's Pride Sued Over COVID-19 Spouse Deaths

By Melissa Angell · April 22, 2021, 7:18 PM EDT

A Pilgrim's Pride employee hit the meatpacker with a wrongful death suit Wednesday in Texas federal court, accusing the company of placing profits over safety after she contracted COVID-19 on the job and purportedly transmitted the infection to her now-deceased husband.

Joining Pilgrim's Pride employee Sybil Elijah, who brought the suit individually and as a representative of the estate of her deceased husband David Elijah, is co-plaintiff Rayford Brown, the spouse of now-deceased Pilgrim's Pride worker Elnora Brown.

Both parties accuse Pilgrim's Pride, along with its parent company JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Packers Sanitation Services, of misrepresenting the COVID-19 infection risk to its employees so that they would continue working at the plant.

Both Elijah and Brown claim that the alleged misrepresentations and failure to implement other preventive measures in a timely manner led to the death of their respective spouses.

"Despite this knowledge, the defendants did not warn workers that others at the Pilgrim's Pride Mt. Pleasant Plant had become infected with COVID-19 and/or were displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19," the complaint says.

Sybil Elijah claims that she was not required or instructed to wear any personal protective equipment while working as a custodian at the Mt. Pleasant Pilgrim's Pride plant until late May or early June in 2020.

She alleges that she seldom went out in public with the exception of going to work and running essential errands, and the majority of her time was spent either at the plant or at home with her husband, David Elijah.

Sybil Elijah says she took a COVID-19 test at the plant around May 20 last year, approximately one day before her husband began exhibiting symptoms. David Elijah, who was disabled, never left his home and was homebound between February and May 2020, according to the complaint.

David Elijah passed away on May 22, four days before Sybil Elijah received a positive COVID-19 test result, the complaint says.

Given his condition of being homebound, Sybil Elijah believes that whatever David Elijah "caught almost certainly came from her exposure at her workplace."

Hundreds to thousands of employees work at the plants in close quarters at conveyor belts where they cut and slice meat and often share equipment and interact over the same surfaces throughout the day, the suit says. The complaint notes that these surfaces and equipment in the facilities are not thoroughly cleaned in compliance with government guidance.

The facilities also maintain "very cold" temperatures to prevent meat products from spoiling or becoming contaminated with pathogens that cause foodborne illness, an environment which the plaintiffs argue is a contributing factor to the high rates of COVID-19 infection among Pilgrim's Pride employees.

"These cold temperatures allow the COVID-19 virus to stay viable outside the body for longer increasing the survival of the virus in the air and therefore increase the risk of infection in these plants," the complaint says.

Elnora Brown also worked at the plant, where her spouse believes she was exposed to and contracted COVID-19, eventually leading to her death.

Both Sybil Elijah and decedent Elnora Brown worked in close proximity to other workers without adequate protective gear, barriers, training or sanitizing stations, the complaint says.

The suit accuses Pilgrim's Pride of not providing sufficient personal protective equipment and failing to implement social distancing measures to protect its workforce from the dangers of an outbreak.

Last May, more than 400 people contracted the coronavirus that traces back to exposure at Pilgrim's Pride facilities, according to the complaint.

"As a result of the defendants' outrageous, reckless, and grossly negligent actions which demonstrated a total disregard for the safety of workers and their families, Decedent Elnora Brown and Decedent David Elijah became infected with COVID-19 and died from such exposure at Pilgrim's Pride facility," the complaint says.

Wednesday's suit against Pilgrim's Pride arrives just days after a judge told See's Candies that it cannot toss a worker's suit claiming that she contracted COVID-19 on the job due to lax safety standards and infected her husband, who later died of complications from the virus.

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

The plaintiffs are represented by Eugene Egdorf of Shrader & Associates LLP.

Counsel for Pilgrim's Pride could not be ascertained on Thursday.

The case is Sybil Elijah et al. v. Pilgrim's Pride Corporation et al., case number 5:21-cv-00047, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

--Additional reporting by Lauren Berg. Editing by Ellen Johnson.

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