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COVID-19 in the Workplace

Enock Benjamin, a worker at the JBS meat processing plant in Souderton, contracted Covid-19 and died. Mr. Benjamin’s Estate has filed a suit against his employer, JBS, in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The JBS plant was required to stay open due to the President’s use of the Defense Production Act declaring the meat processing plants as essential services. Although JBS did shut down for two weeks in an effort to meet the social distancing and CDC recommendations for work environments, the Complaint alleges Mr. Benjamin contracted the coronavirus prior to the shutdown. The CDC has reported that Pennsylvania had 858 Covid-positive employees in the industry.

The Estate claims wrongful death, negligence causing the employee’s deadly encounter with the coronavirus, and the employer’s failure to adequately protect its 1400 employees from the coronavirus. Among other claims, the Complaint asserts that the company scheduled a “Saturday kill” program in March to increase production to meet the panic purchases being made for meats and that JBS had a reckless disregard for the safety and rights of its employees by selecting profits over safety.

Generally, there is immunity from a civil lawsuit afforded to an employer or co-employee under the Worker’s Compensation Act, but there are several exceptions. In Martin v. Lancaster Battery Co., 606 A.2d 444, 448 (Pa. 1992), the Court found a difference between employers who knowingly tolerate workplace conditions that will result in injuries or illnesses and those who have actively misled employees suffering as victims because of the conditions. In the latter case, the employers are found to have precluded their employees from limiting their hazard contact and receiving prompt medical care, and Workers’ Compensation Immunity does not apply. In Kostryckyj v. Pentron Lab, Techs., LLC, 52 A.3d 333, 338 (Pa. Super. 2012), the Superior Court held that to fit this exception, a plaintiff has to prove fraudulent misrepresentation.

The Benjamin Estate’s case is just one of numerous nationwide cases expected against meat processing plants in light of the numerous Covid cases found amongst its employees. Similar cases are likely to turn up in other industries as well. Please contact Leonard Sciolla’s Christopher Fleming if you were injured or sickened at work. Give us a call at (215) 567-1530 for Pennsylvania matters, (856) 273-6679 for New Jersey matters, or email us at any time at [email protected].

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