Tyson Foods is seeking to move the lawsuits from state to federal court of the surviving family members of Tyson employees who died of COVID-19 who sued the company over managers betting on COVID-19 deaths at totals of the company’s Waterloo, Iowa plant.
So why does it matter whether the case is tried in state or federal court? Part of the reason is the composition of the jury pool.
Jury pools in packing house towns
I had a jury trial scheduled the third week of April in Dawson County, Nebraska. The largest private employer in that county is Tyson Fresh Meats in Lexington, Nebraska. In the 27-person jury pool, I had four current employees of Tyson. There were likely other who had worked at Tyson or had friends or family who worked at Tyson.
But in a federal court jury pool in Nebraska, there are likely to be fewer jurors who work in meatpacking or know someone who works in meatpacking. Similar dynamics would likely be in play in Iowa which is demographically similar to Nebraska.
Why it’s harder for Tyson to remove the COVID-19 lawsuit to federal court than typical in this case.
Oftentimes cases against large employers are removed to federal court under so-called diversity jurisdiction because the employee and employer are citizens of different states.
However, the Iowa workers compensation act authorizes a tort claim against co-workers for work injuries due to gross negligence. The plaintiffs in the COVID-19 betting pool case are bringing this case under Iowa’s gross negligence law. Since the cause of action arises under Iowa’s workers’ compensation law, it can’t be removed into federal court.
But Tyson isn’t arguing that for removal from state to federal court on diversity jurisdiction. Tyson is arguing for removal based on acting under a federal order during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Defense Production Act and pre-emption
In April 2020, then President Trump signed an executive order immunizing meatpackers for civil liability for COVID during the pandemic under the Defense Production Act. I wrote a post about the dubious constitutionality of that order last year.
19 State Attorney Generals from predominately Democratic-controlled states filed a brief in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals arguing against removal. The brief gave a detailed explanation of why the Defense Production Act shouldn’t apply and also shot down other pre-emption arguments raised by Tyson.
Importantly, the brief for the Democratic AGs re-enforced the importance of state law in enforcing workplace safety laws. It will be interesting to see how the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rules as it could reveal their thinking about whether federal courts are willing to apply federal law in traditional areas of state jurisdiction like workers’ compensation.