Various workplaces have been the target of litigation from impacted employees alleging unsafe working conditions due to inadequate COVID-19 prevention measures. In recent months, several notable court cases from various jurisdictions, including California, have addressed the issue of whether various workplace conditions constitute a public nuisance.
These cases underline the importance of following the CalOSHA COVID-19 guidance, as well as CDC guidance and state/local government orders.
Rural Community Workers Alliance
v. Smithfield Foods, Inc. (“Smithfield”)
Workers sued Smithfield for public nuisance, alleging they had inadequate COVID-19 prevention measures in place at a meat-packing facility in Milan, Missouri. On May 5, 2020, the Western District of Missouri granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) was a more appropriate institution to oversee Smithfield’s operations, enforce any relevant COVID-19 orders or penalize Smithfield upon discovering any violations to those orders. In addition, the court held that even if the judicial intervention was appropriate, the plaintiffs failed to show an immediate threat of irreparable harm because they only demonstrated a potential contraction of the virus, as opposed to an actual injury. No employee at the Smithfield location had been diagnosed with the virus and management implemented various health and safety measures to prevent exposure to the virus.
Hernandez v. VES McDonald’s
On June 16, 2020, workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Oakland filed a class action suit against the restaurant owners and management. The plaintiffs sued for public nuisance abatement and were granted a temporary restraining order requiring the restaurant to remain closed until the defendants show compliance with all COVID-19 health orders. Plaintiffs include three employees of the McDonald’s restaurant, who contracted the virus while working, and unknowingly spread the virus to family members and friends. Plaintiffs allege this initial contraction of the virus has led to a small outbreak resulting in at least 25 cases of COVID-19 tied to this McDonald’s location, thus causing a public nuisance.
Massey v. McDonald’s Corp.
Most recently, on June 24, 2020, the circuit court of Cook County, Illinois partially granted the plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunction in a public nuisance suit to compel the management at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago to enforce necessary COVID-19 prevention measures. This case also presents a potential for a virus outbreak with two positive cases of COVID-19 for workers at the restaurant. The order outlines the various virus prevention measures that were not enforced by the defendant, including providing an adequate supply of hand sanitizer and accommodating for and enforcing social distancing.