The Public Nuisance Litigation in a Smithfield Foods Meatpacking Case: Workers' Compensation Implications?

Michael C. Duff

May 5, 2020

Cross-posted by permission from Workers' Compensation Law Prof Blog.


As Senate Republicans and corporations continue to lobby for the broadest possible “liability shields” in connection with the Great Reopening, a novel lawsuit framed in terms of public nuisance theory is being litigated in a Missouri federal court. From the Nolo Plain-English Legal Dictionary, a public nuisance is defined as “[a]n activity or thing that affects the health, safety, or morals of a community. It is distinguished from a private nuisance, which harms only a neighbor or a few individuals. For example, a factory that spews out clouds of noxious fumes is a public nuisance, but playing drums at three in the morning is a private nuisance bothering only the immediate neighbors.”

So, under the theory of the case I'm about to discuss, when a meat-packing plant does not conform to, for example, CDC social-distancing guidelines, it is not only the worker who is exposed to a heightened risk of Covid-19 contraction, it is the entire community. The suit Download Smithfield Public Nuisance Base Complaint, styled Rural Community Workers Alliance and Jane Doe v. Smithfield Foods, Inc. and Smithfield Fresh Meats Corp., has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. As I read the pleadings, the suit seeks not to impose “liability” but to compel the defendants not to do “extremely dangerous stuff” that might impact the health and safety of the surrounding community (through injunction and the remedy of abatement). I think of it as an “anti-externality” theory. The genius of the litigation is that it seems to circumnavigate common standing problems by invoking state nuisance law which confers (by definition) standing to a potentially broad swath of plaintiffs—a result that can be difficult under other legal theories in which a narrower class of plaintiffs must show concrete and particularized harms with respect to them.

The outcome could have potentially important workers’ compensation ramifications because it tests the limits of the federal Defense Production Act (DPA) in interplay with state law. As I said above, DPA “liability” is not at issue, because injunctive relief and abatement are sought. Defendants nevertheless—as one part of their “public policy” defense—attempt to displace state authority, under Missouri law, in the traditional state area of nuisance law. If the state can be easily ousted in this suit it may set a “mood point” for what could happen if questions of liability--including workers' compensation liability--under the DPA arise (this is the issue I think is of most interest to workers’ compensation professionals).

I have just gone through defendant Smithfield’s “Opposition to Preliminary Injunction.” (Scintillating material!). Here is my quick, abbreviated analysis. First, says defendant, plaintiff does not qualify for injunctive relief–unlikely to succeed on the state-law merits, no irreparable harm, & etc. Second, defendants provide a number of public policy arguments, in effect drawing on federal law and/or policy, that can be condensed to the following:

  • The injunction would disrupt, contrary to federal Department of Homeland Security guidance, an “essential business.”
  • The court should defer to (mainly federal) regulatory agencies “to promote uniformity and consistency within the particular field of regulation” (a primary jurisdiction argument—the court’s ruling might conflict with, for example, OSHA).
  • The injunction sought lacks necessary specificity and is overly broad. Plaintiffs seek to impose vague requirements on Smithfield that would inevitably lead to disputes over compliance, and turn this Court into a referee over workplace safety issues.

As an initial matter, the defendant’s ambiguity argument seems to be with the CDC Guidelines, not the plaintiffs. Second, the interference with critical infrastructure argument sweeps too far. If defendant was lobbing cannonballs into the surrounding community could it be seriously contended that a court could not interfere with the conduct? If the answer is no, is operating a Covid hotspot and sending sick employees home into the community less dangerous than lobbing cannonballs? I think not. Third, for me the persuasive rejoinder by plaintiff to the actual legal argument (internal citations omitted) is that:

Plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims seek a remedy against business operations that cause a harm to the public generally. OSHA’s jurisdiction focuses on the workplace. It has no authority to promulgate standards to protect the general public . . . And although Missouri’s cause of action for violation of the right to a safe workplace certainly relates to occupational safety, that claim has long formed the basis for injunctive relief in court, even subsequent to the creation of OSHA in 1970. Plaintiffs bring claims under state common law doctrines that OSHA’s regulatory scheme does not displace, and there is no reason for this Court to defer to the primary jurisdiction of OSHA before resolving those claims. In fact, primary jurisdiction is not applicable where plaintiffs do not seek to enforce a federal statute or regulation but bring “an independent state law cause of action for negligence and strict liability.”

In other words, a court cannot interfere with an agency when it issues orders involving conduct outside the agency’s statutory regulatory authority. In a supplemental pleading, after the President’s Defense Production Act Order, defendants doubled-down on the primary jurisdiction argument. Defendants contend that the Order “gives primary jurisdiction over Smithfield’s current operations to the Secretary of Agriculture, and any injunction issued by this Court would undermine that jurisdiction. The order requires the Secretary of Agriculture to consult with executive departments and agencies to balance, on the one hand, the importance of the nation’s meat supply and, on the other, compliance with ‘the guidance for the operations of meat and poultry processing facilities jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA.’” The problem with the argument is that it does not comport with general notions of primary jurisdiction, which is a doctrine to be sparingly applied: no well-structured agency policy “deliberation” is being interfered with. Indeed, the hue and cry is that federal agencies are not acting. Secretary of Agriculture “balancing consultation” with executive departments seems worlds apart from the kinds of court interference with agency functions the primary jurisdiction doctrine contemplates.

To repeat myself a bit, the takeaway for a workers’ compensation audience may be that the thrust of the defendants’ arguments is that common law tort claims, and perhaps workers’ compensation claims, may be brushed aside in the interests of evolving and vague federal “public policy.” That does not square well with the historic police powers of the states. In this country national emergencies do not so easily lead to the instant annihilation of historically-grounded rights.

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