Federal Court Ruling May Set Precedent for Workplace Safety and Health Litigation

May 08, 2020

A federal district court ruling provides some hope that courts will defer enforcement of COVID-19 workplace safety standards to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and give employers some latitude when they are making good faith compliance efforts with the agency's guidance.

The Rural Community Workers Alliance, representing the Smithfield plant workers, alleged that the company failed to adequately protect its workers from COVID-19 exposure at its meat processing plant and brought state law claims for public nuisance and breach of duty to provide a safe workplace.  The workers also sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeking to force Smithfield to provide masks and ensure social distancing, among other infection control protocols.

In Rural Community Workers Alliance v. Smithfield, Inc.the judge ruled OSHA had primary jurisdiction over the workplace safety dispute and dismissed the case. 

The judge ruled that OSHA "is better positioned to make this determination [of whether the plant was adequately abiding by OSHA and the CDC's Joint Guidance] than the Court is...[I]ndeed this determination goes to the heart of OSHA's special competence: its mission includes 'enforcing' occupational safety and health standards."

The court also noted that it "finds only deference to OSHA/USDA will ensure uniform national enforcement of the Joint Guidance...[A]ny determination by this Court whether the plant is complying with the Joint Guidance could easily lead to inconsistent regulation of businesses in the same industry.  And under these circumstances, where the guidelines are rapidly evolving, maintaining a uniform source for guidance and enforcement is critical."

Separately, a judge in New York City dismissed a nurse association's lawsuit against Montefiore Medical Center alleging COVID-19-related workplace safety issues for similar reasons.  Meanwhile, the family of a meatpacking worker who died because of COVID-19 has brought a wrongful death lawsuit in Texas, and more such cases are expected to be filed.

Takeaway: As the return to work commences, employers hope the courts will continue to show this kind of flexibility.  However, it is unclear whether the 22 OSHA-approved "State Plan" states will defer to the federal OSHA and CDC guidance or take different enforcement postures.