A federal appeals court found that Tyson Foods was not acting under the direction of the federal government during the pandemic, meaning it is not protected from a lawsuit filed by employees who contracted COVID-19 at work.
Several employees who contracted COVID-19 while working at two Tyson plants in Texas, along with the families of other employees who died from the disease, filed the lawsuit claiming the company failed to follow federal guidance meant to protect workers from the coronavirus.
Encouraged to keep operating
Tyson argued it was “acting under” direction from the federal government when it chose to keep its poultry processing plants open during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the company said that district courts, in an earlier decision, erred in remanding the lawsuit back to state courts since it was operating under orders from the U.S. government.
However, the Fifth Circuit found that while the Trump administration did hold calls with “critical infrastructure” companies, including Tyson, to encourage them to keep operating, the federal government never told these companies they must stay open.
Despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies worked closely with Tyson during this time to ensure food safety inspections were conducted, the company didn’t have a federal contract and production went solely toward its own profits, the court said.
‘Strong encouragement’ isn’t direction
And while the Trump administration issued an executive order to aid in keeping meat processing facilities open and discussed implementing the Defense Production Act (DPA), the executive order wasn’t mandatory and the DPA wasn’t activated.
“Tyson received, at most, strong encouragement from the federal government,” the appeals court decision states. “But Tyson was never told that it must keep its facilities open. Try as it might, Tyson cannot transmogrify suggestion and concern into direction and control.”
The appeals court affirmed the district courts’ orders and remanded the lawsuit to the state court.