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Tyson attorneys seek to move COVID lawsuit to federal court

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WATERLOO, Iowa – A lawsuit brought by relatives of two Tyson workers in Waterloo and Independence who died days apart of COVID-19 has been transferred to federal court.

It’s a move that hasn’t worked for other coronavirus lawsuits against the meatpacking giant.

Family members of Jeffrey Orvis and Arthur Scott, both of Waterloo, filed suit against Tyson Fresh Meats, Tyson Pet Products and a list of plant officials and supervisors in Black Hawk County District Court in April 2021, alleging the company ignored warnings about the coronavirus pandemic and didn’t take the necessary steps to protect its workers.

On Monday, the suit was transferred to U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids at the request of the defense claiming the allegations involve actions the company took at the direction of federal officers -- former President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Agriculture.

Orivs, 65, had worked at the Waterloo plant and died April 19, 2020. Scott, 51, was employed at the Independence facility and died on April 23, 2020.

Their deaths came as community leaders and health officials were calling for Tyson to close its Waterloo operation amid a COVID-19 outbreak, a call that the company dismissed for more than a week before shuttering the operation on April 22, 2020.

In court records, Tyson denied the allegations, saying it invested millions in safety equipment and followed federal workplace guidelines.

“Tyson worked hand-in-hand with federal officials from the time of the declaration of a national emergency on March 13 to safely continue operations to aid the federal government in accomplishing its duty to secure the national food supply,” the company’s attorneys said in court records.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed out that Tyson had processed enough meat to increase its exports to China during the pandemic, and they noted the Independence plant – where Scott worked -- doesn't make food. It makes dog treats.

“Although Tyson’s plant manufactures dog treats, Tyson claimed that it was critical infrastructure and essential to the nation’s food supply,” the suit states.

The Independence plant remained open after the governor issued an order closing non-essential businesses on March 26, 2020.

“Perhaps sensing the tenuous nature of its claim that manufacturing dog treats was essential, employees were given a letter to carry with them indicating that their work was essential,” the suit states.

Trial dates haven’t been set, and it isn’t clear if the suit will remain in federal court.

Similar suits against Tyson Foods filed by the families of deceased workers Sedika Buljic, Reberiano Garcia, Jose Ayala and Isidro Fernandez had also been diverted to the federal court on similar grounds at the company’s request. A U.S. District Court judge disagreed with the “acting on the direction of federal officers” reasons for the transfer and sent them back to Black Hawk County District Court in December.

The decision to send those cases back is undergoing a challenge at the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which has put the cases on pause.

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