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Lawsuit says Tyson did little to prevent COVID death at Storm Lake plant

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Tyson Foods Storm Lake pork plant (copy)

A judge has stayed proceedings in a lawsuit filed against Tyson Fresh Meats by the estate of a Fonda, Iowa, man who worked at one of the company's Storm Lake plants and died of COVID-19. Tyson sought the stay while a federal appeals court decides issues in two similar cases involving COVID-related deaths in Tyson's Waterloo, Iowa, plant.

STORM LAKE, Iowa -- Despite knowing the risks of COVID-19 and how to mitigate them, Tyson Foods continued to place Michael Everhard in a confined work environment without proper safety measures, the family of the late Fonda, Iowa, man said in a lawsuit.

A 27-year employee of the Tyson pork plant in Storm Lake, Everhard died of COVID-19 on June 18, three weeks after he was hospitalized and diagnosed with the respiratory illness the family says he contracted at the plant.

"... Tyson and its managerial employees, including these defendants, required (Everhard) to work in an environment rife with coronavirus when they knew or should have known that Tyson wasn't implementing the necessary safety precautions available to protect workers and that the risk that (Everhard) would become infected was very high," Storm Lake attorney Willis Hamilton said in the lawsuit, filed Friday in Buena Vista County District Court.

Everhard's three children are suing Tyson for gross negligence. Hamilton said in the lawsuit that Tyson did not take proper mitigation steps in May and June, and "by their conscious indifference to the warnings and recommendations of the many health organizations, state and federal agencies were grossly negligent" and led to the 65-year-old Everhard's death.

They are seeking a jury award of an unspecified amount of damages as compensation for their loss and damages.

A Tyson spokeswoman defended the company's efforts to protect its workers from the virus.

"We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families. Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers, and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19," spokeswoman Liz Croston said in an emailed statement.

Also named in the lawsuit are Tom Brower, Tyson's senior vice president of health and safety; Rick Retzlaff, Storm Lake Tyson complex manager; plant safety manager Jorge Sandoval; area safety manager Laurie Garcia and Randy Wiley, Everhard's supervisor.

Tyson employs more than 2,300 workers at its Storm Lake turkey and pork processing plants. According to the lawsuit, Tyson workers in Storm Lake tested positive for COVID-19 as early as May 1. By that time meatpacking plants operated by Tyson and other companies had already been idled or slowed because of outbreaks of the virus in plants across the nation.

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State and federal agencies as early as March had provided companies with guidelines to reduce the virus' spread, including spacing workers more than 6 feet apart, placing physical barriers between employees, providing them with face masks and other protective equipment and increased sanitizing.

The lawsuit said that Tyson either failed to follow those recommendations or did not follow them fully. Everhard continued to work in close proximity to other workers, the suit said, and he wasn't provided proper protective gear. Other barriers, training and sanitizing were inadequate.

Tyson conducted mass testing of its Storm Lake workers in May, and in June announced that 591 workers at the pork plant there had tested positive for COVID-19.

In July, Tyson announced plans to launch weekly testing of workers at all of its plants and said it planned to hire nearly 200 nurses and support personnel to support the 400 people who already were part of the company's health services team. Storm Lake also will be the first site for seven pilot clinics adjacent to Tyson plants the company plans to open around the country.

The Storm Lake lawsuit is believed to be the first COVID-related suit filed against a meatpacker in Siouxland. It is not the first suit filed against Tyson in Iowa. The families of three workers who had worked at the company's Waterloo, Iowa, plant and died of COVID-19 sued the company in November.

The lawsuits will test legislation signed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in June that shields businesses from many virus-related lawsuits. Republicans who backed the law said it was needed to protect businesses against frivolous lawsuits. Democrats said it would remove worker protections.

In an interview Monday, Hamilton said the new law increases the difficulty of proving negligence by a company. Hamilton said other workers at Tyson in Storm Lake also have died of COVID-19.

Hamilton said in the lawsuit that Tyson can only claim immunity from liability for injuries or death of its employees if worker's compensation or occupational disease compensation benefits were recoverable by a worker's family or estate. Because Tyson has denied that Everhard's family has a claim for worker's compensation, Hamilton said, the company loses that immunity and damages are recoverable for ordinary acts of negligence.

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A COVID risk dial on the Northeast Nebraska Health Department's website still registers in the orange, or high-risk, zone, but it's dropped from red (severe risk). Woodbury County on Wednesday reported a fifth straight day of 60 or fewer new cases.

The estate of a man who worked at Tyson's Storm Lake pork plant for 27 years sued the company, saying he was forced to work without proper safety measures while Tyson knew it was not implementing the necessary measures to protect workers from COVID-19. 

Tyson claims the negligence claim filed by a family who says their father contracted COVID-19 at a Storm Lake plant is barred by Iowa liability protection law and a critical infrastructure designation by former President Donald Trump.

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