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May 21, 2020 by Michael C. Duff

Another Public Nuisance COVID Suit: Why is the McDonald's Case Different?

A recent, interesting lawsuit filed against McDonald's, in Cook County, Illinois, suffers from few of the deficiencies that I have identified in prior postings about public nuisance cases related to COVID-19 (see here and here). The named employee-plaintiffs allege "negligence" in what might look at first blush like a drop-dead workers' compensation case. This time, however, there is a wrinkle: The negligence action is pursued against both franchisor-McDonalds (McDonald's USA) and certain of McDonald's franchise restaurants (McDonald's Restaurant of Illinois, Inc., Lexi Management LLC, and DAK4, LLC). One may be the employer (subject to workers' compensation liability), and the others may not (and therefore be liable in tort). Because you cannot know in advance how the question will come out, you allege negligence with respect to each defendant. This is perfectly sensible.

It will be politically difficult for McDonald's USA to argue that it is a joint employer with its franchisees (and therefore protected by exclusivity) because it has been making the opposite argument at the National Labor Relations Board for years. It may be that under Illinois law McDonald's will be able to walk this tightrope. After all …

May 18, 2020 by Darya Minovi
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In recent weeks, as a result of cramped conditions and inadequate protections, several U.S. meat plants have closed due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers. In one particularly stunning instance, a Tyson pork processing plant in Perry, Iowa, shut down after 730 workers (58 percent of the plant's workforce) tested positive. New data from Johns Hopkins University shows that the virus spreads at more than twice the national rate in counties with major meatpacking plants. The United States now faces a meat shortage, a direct result of a broken food system – one that is built to reliably feed the bottom line of industrial agriculture at the expense of public health.

Despite the chaos, federal agencies’ responses seem to favor industry over worker and consumer health. In March, the Food and Drug Administration postponed in-person inspections at factories, canneries, and poultry farms, then in April gave a number …

May 13, 2020 by Daniel Farber
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Originally published on Legal Planet. Reprinted with permission.

Sen. Mitch McConnell is demanding that any future coronavirus relief law provide a litigation shield for businesses, and other conservative and business interests have made similar proposals. So far, the supporters of these proposals have engaged in some dramatic handwaving but haven't begun to make a reasoned argument in support of a litigation shield.

In this post, I'm going to limit myself to negligence suits against businesses. Basically, these lawsuits claim the plaintiff got the virus due to the failure of a business to take reasonable safety precautions.

Even without a business shield, these are not going to be easy cases to win. Plaintiffs will have to show that they were exposed to the virus due to the defendant's business operation, that better precautions would have prevented the exposure, and that they weren't exposed elsewhere.

Tort lawyers may be …

May 12, 2020 by James Goodwin
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Yesterday, a group of 20 Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) Board Members, Member Scholars, and staff joined a letter to House and Senate leaders calling on them to reject efforts to attach to future COVID-19 pandemic-related legislation provisions that would interfere with the ability of workers, consumers, and members of their families to hold businesses accountable when their unreasonably dangerous actions have caused workers or consumers to contract the virus. Instead, as the letter urges, lawmakers should ensure that our courthouse doors remain open to all Americans to pursue any meritorious civil justice claims for injuries they suffer arising from companies' failure to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

The letter comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing this afternoon on the topic of “Examining Liability During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Insulating corporations against public accountability through the courts has long been …

May 8, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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In the latest episode of CPR Board President Rob Verchick's Connect the Dots podcast, he and CPR Member Scholars Michael Duff and Thomas McGarity explore worker safety issues in the era of the coronavirus.

McGarity begins the conversation with the story of Annie Grant, a 15-year veteran of the packing line at a Tyson Food poultry processing plant in Camilla, Georgia. One morning in late March, weeks after the nation had awakened to the danger of the coronavirus and states had begun locking down, she felt feverish. When her children urged her to stay home rather than work with a fever on the chilled poultry line, she told them that the company insisted that she continue to work. Furthermore, Tyson was offering a $500 bonus to employees if they worked for three months without missing a day. So, she went in to work, where she labored shoulder-to-shoulder …

May 7, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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With the majority of states beginning to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions, many Americans who've been sheltering in place for the past few weeks are now facing a difficult choice: Go back to workplaces that might not be safe, or risk being fired. They'll face similar choices at grocery stores, pharmacies, home centers, and everywhere else they go where they must rely on the precautions taken by owners, managers, and others for their safety.

Eager to fire up the economy with an election approaching, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has announced his intention to block a fourth stimulus bill if it does not include a provision extending broad immunity to businesses for any COVID-19 infections they cause workers or customers. If adopted, such immunity from litigation would leave us all at the not-so-tender mercies of the marketplace. Shielded from accountability and stung by lost business, too many …

May 6, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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In what for me is an ominous development, the Smithfield Foods public nuisance case, about which I blogged earlier, has been summarily denied by a Missouri federal district court and the case has been dismissed. The decision took all of twelve days.

In a nutshell, the court accepted the primary jurisdiction arguments that I have previously discussed but will not repeat here. Sometimes cases are illustrative of clear legal principles. This, for me, is not one of those cases. Sometimes cases set "mood points." And I fear that is the situation here. I have great concern about the prospect for an unreflective, anti-liability fervor enveloping the Great Reopening, though this decision did not directly reach questions of liability that could impact state workers' compensation or tort law. Narrowly read, the heart of the case is …

May 6, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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One of the most telling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is has been its disparate impact on minority communities in the United States. At least three factors seem to be at work in the elevated death rate: uneven access to health care, greater prevalence of preexisting (and often inadequately treated) comorbidities, and greater likelihood of on-the-job exposure. Writing in the Boston Globe last week, CPR Member Scholar Shalanda Baker, together with co-authors Alecia McGregor, Camara Jones, and Michelle Morse, point out yet another way that the pandemic is taking a particular toll on low-income communities and communities of color.

They point to a decision by a for-profit hospital chain, Steward Health Care, to convert Carney Hospital in Dorchester, Mass., which under normal conditions serves as a safety net hospital for low-income residents, into a dedicated COVID-19 hospital.

The co-authors note that while the decision was initially deemed …

May 4, 2020 by Rachel Micah-Jones, Matt Shudtz
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This is an excerpt from an op-ed originally published in the Baltimore Sun. You can read the full op-ed here.

President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants to continue operating despite COVID-19 outbreaks, exposing Maryland's poultry workers to enormous risks. Poultry processors haven't demonstrated they're able to keep workers safe and healthy, but they know that many of these low-wage workers will be forced to return. To top it all off, one of the president's goals with this order was to provide legal immunity to companies, so that they can't be sued by employees who are infected as a result of unsafe working conditions.

All the risks cascade down onto the workers. Many are from immigrant backgrounds and don't speak English. They're also exempted from vital protections, federal relief packages, and can't access COVID-19 treatment and care. We're standing in …

May 4, 2020 by Sean B. Hecht
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For decades, "states' rights" has been a rallying cry of the right wing. Most Americans are familiar with the dynamics that required the federalization of civil rights law, both in the 1860s and again in the 1960s, the protection of much of our nation's federal lands, and the national crises that necessitated the federal government to enact national minimum standards to protect public health and the environment. Many of us are also familiar with the right-wing backlash to these movements—indeed, the devolving of baseline environmental standards and public land management to the state and local level has been a keystone of the political right since at least Ronald Reagan's presidency.

But federalism—the division of authority between state and local governments, on one hand, and the federal government on the other—doesn't have to tilt in one (rightward …

CPR HOMEPAGE
More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
May 21, 2020

Another Public Nuisance COVID Suit: Why is the McDonald's Case Different?

May 18, 2020

Virtual Town Hall Meeting to Focus on Delmarva Agricultural Pollution's Impact on Public Health

May 13, 2020

Free to Be Negligent?

May 12, 2020

CPR Calls on Congress to Preserve Citizen Access to the Courts in Wake of Pandemic

May 8, 2020

When 'Essential' Means 'Expendable': Connecting the Dots Between Back-to-Work Orders and Spread of Coronavirus

May 7, 2020

McGarity Op-Ed: Beware Mitch McConnell's Liability Shield!

May 6, 2020

Boston Globe Op-ed: Amidst COVID-19, Hospital Siting Decisions Have Equity Implications