Rigoberto Ruiz contracted the COVID-19 virus and while he pulled through fine, his wife was not as fortunate. Martha Ruiz subsequently caught the virus and her death was diagnosed as being from COVID-19. Roberto is now suing his employer, Conagra Foods Packaged Food in Darien, WI, alleging that it was workplace negligence that caused the virus to spread.
Here’s what’s being argued on both sides of the Conagra Foods lawsuit.
Ruiz’s lawsuit alleges that Conagra failed to enforce mask-wearing in the plant and that supervisors routinely ignored employees’ failure to observe recommended protocols from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Ruiz will share with the court internal company emails where employees express concerns over how safety was being handled in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adam Pulver, an attorney working with the Ruiz family, said the pandemic has taken a tragic toll on the food industry in particular, with case numbers in the tens of thousands.
The charge of negligence—that Conagra failed to exercise reasonable and appropriate care of the workplace—is the core of the argument brought forth by Ruiz.
The case for immunity
Conagra denies the charges of negligence and has added another intriguing legal argument to their defense—that their status as an essential supplier renders them immune to the lawsuit in either case. The case for immunity was filed at the end of March 2021 and while a ruling has not been issued, the company has succeeded in getting the case moved to federal court.
The reason is the Public Readiness & Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP). Passed in 2005, PREP provides a certain level of immunity to companies in what are deemed essential industries.
“Although Ruiz’s wife’s death was a tragedy, as are all COVID-19 deaths…(it) highlights the COVID-19 challenges that critical infrastructure businesses faced, particularly in the early days of the pandemic.” Thus goes Conagra’s argument regarding Martha’s passing in the spring of 2020.
Pulver takes a different view, pointing out that most of the companies that have previously claimed PREP immunity are facilities for senior citizens, who faced a truly unique challenge in 2020.
“There’s no indication that the PREP act was designed to protect companies like Conagra who just failed to protect their workers,” Pulver argues.
The court will have to decide 3 different areas of argument in this case.
First, was the intention of the PREP act to immunize companies in all sectors from virtually any liability, save the most extreme cases? Second, the court will then have to weigh the fact that (in the company’s favor) this was very early in the pandemic and everyone was trying to find their new footing against the other fact (in Ruiz’s favor) that CDC protocols on masks were in place by the spring of 2020.
Was the company, in fact, negligent?
The legal burden will fall on the plaintiff, Mr. Ruiz, to win the day on all 3 questions in order to get legal relief for his loss.