In April 2020, Sedika Buljic, Reberiano Garcia, and Jose Luis Ayala, Jr., contracted COVID-19, during there was an outbreak of at the Tyson Foods meatpacking facility where they worked. All three died in April and May 2020. Their survivors later filed a lawsuit in Iowa state court against the company and management that operated the plant, alleging that they violated Iowa tort law by acting negligently and making fraudulent misrepresentations to the workers in the plant. The defendants removed the action to federal court, claiming that the company was acting “at the direction of a federal officer.” The plaintiffs moved to remand the action to state court, and, in December 2020, the district court granted that motion. The court held that Tyson was not acting as a “federal officer” in operating its meatpacking plants. It also held neither the Federal Meat Inspection Act nor the Defense Production Act preempted plaintiffs’ state-law claims.
Public Citizen represents Ms. Buljic, Mr. Garcia, and Mr. Ayala’s survivors in the defendants’ appeal of the remand order. The defendants moved for a stay of that order pending appeal, which the court of appeals granted. The appeal was then consolidated with the defendants’ appeal in Fernandez v. Tyson Foods. Representing the plaintiffs-appellees in both cases, we argued, among other things, that the district court correctly found that Tyson was not acting under the direction of a federal officer, because there was no evidence of delegation of federal authority or strict control of Tyson’s operations by any federal officer.
In December 2021, the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion unanimously affirming the district court, agreeing with our arguments that Tyson was not acting under any federal directives outside the ordinary regulatory regime at the relevant time, and that Tyson’s receipt of assistance from the federal government did not entitle it to remove the families’ claims to federal court. The case will now return to Iowa state court to litigate the cases on the merits.