PHILADELPHIA — The estate of a Philadelphia man who allegedly contracted COVID-19 while working at the JBS beef processing plant in Franconia filed a wrongful death suit against the company, claiming “it elected to pursue profits over safety during a global pandemic.”

The suit was filed on Thursday in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas by the estate of Enock Benjamin, who was the union chief steward at the Souderton area plant and who, according to the suit, died of respiratory failure caused by the coronavirus on April 3. The plant is located in the 200 block of Allentown Road.

Listed as plaintiffs in the suit are several JBS affiliates, including the Brazilian parent company, JBS S.A.; JBS Souderton Inc., of Harrisburg; Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, of Harrisburg; and JBS USA Food Company and JBS USA Holdings Inc., of Greeley Colo.

“During these unprecedented times, we must always remember that worker safety comes first. JBS treated workers as expendable and placed them standing shoulder-to-shoulder without basic protective equipment such as masks. JBS placed profits over safety and must be held accountable,” Robert J. Mongeluzzi, one of the lawyers representing Benjamin’s family, said on Thursday.

Mongeluzzi, of the Philadelphia firm Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, believes the suit, which includes claims of wrongful death, negligence, and fraudulent misrepresentation, is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania and among only a handful in the U.S.

Attempts to reach representatives of JBS were unsuccessful on Thursday.

Mongeluzzi said Benjamin was chief steward of Local 1776, United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Benjamin, who was a husband of 37 years, a father and had recently become a grandfather, was the “go-to-man” for JBS Souderton employees and was known as a “champion of the people” by his colleagues, according to the suit.

Benjamin, 70, began working at the plant, which specializes in beef processing and packaging, in 2008, according to the suit.

The suit, which seeks punitive and compensatory damages for Benjamin’s alleged pain and suffering and loss of earning capacity, alleged Benjamin’s death resulted from his contracting COVID-19 while working at the JBS plant under unsafe conditions without proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

“This wrongful death and survival action concerns the negligent, reckless and outrageous conduct of JBS, the largest beef processing company in the world, because it elected to pursue profits over safety during a global pandemic,” the suit alleged. “Enock Benjamin’s death was the predictable and preventable result of the JBS defendants’ decisions to ignore worker safety. The JBS defendants ignored federal guidance and put plant workers in the crosshairs of a global pandemic.”

The suit alleged that despite knowing the risks regarding COVID-19, prior to shutting down the plant on March 30, JBS failed to provide sufficient PPE; forced workers to work in close proximity; forced workers to use cramped and crowded work areas, break areas, restrooms and hallways; discouraged workers from taking sick leave in a manner that had sick workers in fear of losing their jobs; and failed to properly provide testing and monitoring for individuals who had or may have been exposed to the virus.

The suit alleged that JBS did not mandate the use of masks or PPE for their workers until April 14 and alleged the meatpacking plant was “a melting pot for the spread of infection.”

Steven G. Wigrizer, also a partner in the law firm, claimed that right before the plant slowed production for cleaning on March 30, “it demonstrated that it was out to make a killing in the beef market with meat for consumers becoming scarce.”

“While it could have devoted weekends to disinfecting the plant following federal guidelines, JBS instead added what it called a ‘Saturday Kill’ to increase production and its bottom line,” Wigrizer alleged.

Jeffrey P. Goodman, also a partner in the Philadelphia law firm added, “By forcing workers to do their jobs without providing face masks or taking any steps to enable physical distancing, JBS violated federal law. Sadly, the Benjamin family suffered consequences for JBS’s unforgivable callousness.”

The suit alleged that when Benjamin last arrived for work on March 27, “a number of his coworkers had already become infected.” Later that day, Benjamin left the plant after experiencing cough-like symptoms and that over the next week his condition worsened and “breathing became nearly impossible.”

On April 3, Benjamin’s son called emergency responders but Benjamin “died in his son’s arms before the ambulance arrived,” according to the suit. A subsequent autopsy determined Benjamin died from respiratory complications related to COVID-19, the suit alleged.

The suit alleged that by keeping the plant open without providing the proper and recommended safety precautions, JBS “intentionally misrepresented the safety of the facility.”

“The conditions that JBS workers were exposed to are repulsive. There is no question that the unsafe working environment should have been modified to adhere to CDC recommendations. Instead, workers were forced to choose between two horrific alternatives: work literally alongside those likely infected or be unable to support their families,” alleged Jason S. Weiss, another lawyer for the firm representing Benjamin’s survivors.

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