A worker is suing his employer, ConAgra Foods Packaged Foods, alleging he got infected with COVID-19 at work and passed the disease on to his wife, who died of it.
Beloit resident Rigoberto Ruiz alleges the company, owned by Conagra Brands, didn’t enforce any policy to ensure that employees wore masks in its Darien plant, where he worked and which processes Birds Eye frozen vegetable products.
The lawsuit says many employees failed to wear masks in the plant within the view of supervisors, who failed to take corrective action.
“As a result, an outbreak occurred at the plant which required the plant to close and which resulted in Rigoberto Ruiz becoming infected with Covid-19,” the complaint says.
Ruiz’s wife, Martha Amador De Ruiz, “suffered greatly from the Covid-19 virus until it ultimately caused her death on May 5, 2020,” the complaint says.
The suit says the company was negligent because it failed to adopt and enforce policies required by the CDC and indicated by generally understood medical advice to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
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Ruiz’s lawyers filed the complaint in February in Walworth County Circuit Court, but Conagra is asking the federal Wisconsin Eastern District Court to hear the case instead.
In its brief to dismiss the complaint, the company says the Darien plant remained open at the time because it was deemed essential infrastructure needed to maintain the country’s food supply. The brief says the company implemented the CDC’s recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including having its employees use personal protective equipment, such as masks.
The brief also says the company has immunity from having to pay any compensation for the death of Ruiz’s wife under a federal law that protects some companies and individuals from claims tied to the use of vaccines, drugs and devices against certain diseases and threats, such as COVID-19.
Conagra argues that because Ruiz’s claims relate to ConAgra’s administration or use of personal protective equipment to prevent or mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the federal PREP Act provides the company with immunity.
Adam Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group, which litigates cases on behalf of workers and consumers, said judges across the country are rejecting similar claims of immunity from nursing homes.
He said the PREP Act’s goal was to encourage the manufacture and administration of vaccines. The act, he said, offers immunity from claims tied to the use of specific vaccines, drugs and medical devices, such as respiratory protective equipment approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
It does not provide immunity for companies who do not take precautions to stop the spread of the disease, Pulver said.
Since the fall, he said, dozens of nursing homes have claimed the act provides them with immunity from lawsuits over their failure to take adequate measures to protect residents and nurses from COVID-19.
In the 46 cases that they are aware of, Pulver said, only one court has accepted this argument, and judges have noted that case is an outlier.
Victor Arellano, one of the lawyers representing Ruiz, declined to comment until a federal judge decides whether the case can proceed.
Conagra spokesman Dan Hare said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But Hare said the company has implemented many preventive measures to keep people safe across the firm, including the use of face masks and shields, social distancing and plexiglass barriers between work stations where people work less than 6 feet apart.
The outbreak at the Darien facility was the third largest among facilities and businesses in Wisconsin as of June 1, according to data from the Department of Health Services obtained from Brown County through a public records request by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Michael Cummins, spokesman for Conagra Brands, said in July that 221 of the more than 800 workers tested positive at the facility. The data didn’t show any deaths linked to the plant outbreak.
Employees and advocacy group UMOS raised concerns last spring about the safety of the plant and the company-provided housing for migrant workers.
UMOS filed complaints with the state Department of Workforce Development, saying the organization received reports that workers with COVID-19 symptoms were asked to work the line to ensure the product did not spoil and that migrant workers who tested positive were allowed to intermingle with others in the company’s housing common areas.
Cummins said the firm placed workers who tested positive in separate housing and asked them to stay away from other employees. Plant manager Christopher Guyon denied that employees were asked to work while sick. He said the company encouraged workers who felt ill to stay home. He said the firm tried to distance the beds in the barracks as much as possible and had workers sleep in every other bed.
UMOS’s complaint to the state was referred to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which closed a COVID-related inspection on the plant without finding any violations, according to the agency’s website.