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Judge dismisses suit claiming Missouri plant ‘public nuisance’

A federal judge has dismissed a suit brought by workers at a Milan pork plant against its owner, Smithfield Foods.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Greg Kays granted the company’s motion to dismiss the suit.

In his order, he ruled that under the primary-jurisdiction doctrine, he should decline to hear the matter so that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration could consider the issues raised in the case.

“But even if the Court did not apply the primary-jurisdiction doctrine, the Court would not issue a preliminary injunction because Plaintiffs have not met their burden of proving that the extraordinary remedy of an affirmative injunction is justified,” he said.

The plaintiffs — the Rural Community Workers Alliance and Jane Doe, an unidentified worker at the Milan plant in Sullivan County — filed suit April 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

They alleged the company, in failing to comply with basic health and safety standards outlined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA, is creating a public nuisance that not only endangers the workers but also the broader community.

The workers did not seek monetary damages, but rather injunctive relief that would have required Smithfield Foods to take more measures to protect workers.

They sought a preliminary injunction, which Kays also denied in his order.

Kays outlined in the order the actions the company has taken to protect its workers, including requiring all employees to undergo thermal screening, providing all workers masks daily and building tents to help spread out workers on breaks.

Kays said in order to grant injunctive relief, he must find whether the plaintiffs will suffer an actual, imminent harm if the injunction is denied.

“This is not the same as analyzing whether employees risk exposure if they continue to work, and, unfortunately, no one can guarantee health for essential workers — or even the general public — in the middle of this global pandemic,” he said.

Kays said given the measures Smithfield Foods has taken, along with the fact that there are to date no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the plant, he can’t conclude that the spread of COVID-19 at the plant is inevitable or that the company would be unable to contain it if it occurs.

He also said the workers have not shown they are likely to succeed on their public-nuisance claim.

“While Plaintiffs argue that Smithfield could do more to protect its workers, that is not the issue before this Court,” he said. “The issue is whether the Plant, as it is currently operating, constitutes an offense against the public order. Because of the significant measures Smithfield has implemented to combat the disease and the lack of COVID-19 at the facility, the Plant cannot be said to violate the public’s right to health and safety.”

Attorneys representing the workers disagreed that the plant has done enough to protect workers.

David Muraskin, litigation director for the Public Justice Food Project and an attorney representing the workers, said in a statement that any changes implemented are the “result of the courageous workers who came forward to demand better from the company.”

“Their unprecedented stand for workplace safety has resonated across the entire meat packing industry,” he said in a statement. “Smithfield, and other companies across the country, are now on notice that the entire nation is watching their actions and insisting on fair treatment for their employees.”

Jean Paul Bradshaw II of Lathrop GPM in Kansas City is representing Smithfield Foods. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

The case is Rural Community Workers Alliance et al. v. Smithfield Foods Inc. et al., 5:20-cv-06063.

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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