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May 5, 2020 by Michael C. Duff

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

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 …

May 5, 2020 by Darya Minovi
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As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, public health data continues to show that the virus’s worst effects are felt by communities already weighed down by the burden of multiple social and environmental stressors. As of May 3, in CPR’s home city of Washington, DC, African Americans account for 79 percent of coronavirus deaths, despite making up only 45 percent of the city’s population and 47 percent of diagnosed cases. This inequitable trend appears to be playing out across the country.

Widely cited research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has also connected long-term air pollution exposure and coronavirus mortality, prompting researchers to explore this link in their own communities. Using Harvard’s data, Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic mapped particulate matter emissions against parish-level health and COVID-19 data in Louisiana. Their findings confirmed the suspicions of local …

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 …

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 …

April 30, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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Update: The president's order has issued. I now have doubt as to whether the Defense Production Act provides immunity to tort actions (if that was the plan) to parties bound by it outside the context of military contractors. See In Re Aircraft Crash Lit. Frederick, Md., 752 F. Supp. 1326, 1330 n.2 (S.D. Ohio 1990); see In Re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation, 597 F. Supp. 740, 843 n.27 (E.D.N.Y. 1984). As we used to say back in my ice hockey days, this could be a donnybrook.


When I was a young whipper-snapper, an airline supervisor once ordered me to put my rain gear on and enter an airplane baggage compartment into which "lavatory fluid" had discharged due to a malfunction. I told him to pound sand. That memory popped into my head when I read that the president was ordering …

April 30, 2020 by Robert Verchick
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No one really expected FEMA’s leadership of the coronavirus response to be inspiring or even, to put it bluntly, moderately competent. Still, I’ve been puzzled by several reports from state leaders and others that federal authorities have been confiscating purchased medical supplies without explanation or, at least in one case, compensation.

I don’t mean situations where a federal agency outbids someone or orders a vendor to sell to the federal government instead. That happens, too, and the practice is controversial. I’m talking about instances in which federal officials show up unannounced at a warehouse or a port and physically seize crates of medical gear that had been on their way to some needy hospital or test center that had paid or agreed to pay for them. The agent flashes a badge, the goods are trucked out, and no one knows where they go …

April 27, 2020 by Katie Tracy
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Tomorrow, April 28, is Workers' Memorial Day, a day the labor movement established to mourn workers killed on the job and to renew the fight for the living. This year, as the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, taking its toll on workers and their families, we’re reminded more than ever of how critical it is to guarantee all workers the right to a safe and healthy workplace.

Even before COVID-19, a typical day in the United States saw 14 workers killed on the job – hardworking people who set out for work, never to return home. In 2018, 5,250 workers – one worker every 100 minutes – died on the job. Black and Latinx workers were hit hardest in 2018, with a 16 percent increase from 2017 in black worker deaths and a 6 percent increase in Latinx worker deaths. As in years past, tens of thousands of additional …

April 21, 2020 by Brian Gumm
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On April 17, CPR Board President Rob Verchick joined EPA enforcement chief Susan Bodine and other panelists for an American Bar Association webinar on environmental protections and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the event, Bodine expressed "surprise" that the agency's pandemic enforcement policy was so roundly criticized, but she shouldn't have been caught off guard by those critiques.

As Verchick noted during the discussion, "The problem with [weakening monitoring and pollution reporting requirements] is that fenceline communities have no idea where to look. They have no idea if the facilities in their backyards are…taking a holiday from pollution requirements or not."

Verchick added, "Companies don't know what their competitors are doing, and so now you've got companies who might be thinking, oh, well, my competing facilities, maybe they're taking advantage of this and I must, too, because nobody knows who's taking advantage …

April 21, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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Editor's Note: With COVID-19 cases contracted at work on the rise, labor and employment attorneys, businesses, advocates, and workers are all wondering if their state’s workers’ compensation law will apply, and alternatively, if an ill worker could file a lawsuit against their employer. The answers to these questions are not simple, as workers’ compensation laws vary by state, and when it comes to occupational diseases, the applicability of workers’ comp is often even more complicated.

In a recent post on Workers’ Compensation Law Prof Blog, CPR Member Scholar Michael Duff discusses the so-called workers’ compensation “grand bargain,” under which workers receive no-fault benefits for work-related injuries and illnesses in exchange for giving up their right to file a lawsuit against their employer. In his post, Duff explores the circumstances in which a worker who has contracted COVID-19 at work may still have the right to file …

April 20, 2020 by Katie Tracy
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As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, reports abound of essential frontline workers laboring without such basic protective gear as masks, gloves, soap, or water; with improper distancing between workstations and coworkers; and in workplaces alongside infected colleagues. So far, nearly 4,000 workers have filed complaints with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), raising concerns about health and safety conditions inside the workplace. Yet the agency has been largely absent at a time it is most needed.

Shamefully, as COVID-19 illnesses rise in slaughterhouses, grocery stores, hospitals, and other worksites across the nation, the agency has chosen to go against its very mission of protecting America’s workers, ignoring calls to adopt emergency standards and rolling back its enforcement efforts.

Since early March, unions, advocates, and workers have called on OSHA to take immediate action to adopt an emergency temporary standard and subsequent permanent standard …

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