Sybil Elijah believes she contracted the coronavirus while working at a Texas chicken production plant and passed the virus to her husband, who later died.

Elnora Brown also worked at the plant, and she died nearly a month later at age 60. Her husband is convinced she got covid-19 on the job.

Those are among the claims in a lawsuit filed against Pilgrim’s Pride, a multinational food corporation with operations in several states, alleging the company wantonly disregarded worker safety and was grossly negligent.

But the meatpacker is utilizing a new Texas law to argue the lawsuit should be thrown out. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a bill last month raising the bar for what employees will have to prove to sue their employers for being exposed to the coronavirus at work. Consumer advocates and labor rights groups say the law effectively makes it nearly impossible for workers to win in court.

“You cannot prevail,” said Remington Gregg, an attorney with the nonprofit group Public Citizen. “A worker cannot prevail under Texas law.”

Although the lawsuit was filed in April, the new statute can be retroactively applied to cases stretching back to March 2020.

As the pandemic worsened, federal and state lawmakers pushed to pass legislation to protect businesses from coronavirus-related liability. The issue became a sticking point, creating a standoff in the federal coronavirus relief bill saga.

The covid-19 business liability language did not make it into the federal bill, leaving states to the task of defending businesses as they saw fit. Some, such as Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama, have put in place new regulations in states where advocates say there were already restrictive worker protections.

Proponents of the liability laws said they shield businesses, already struggling from the pandemic, from an onslaught of lawsuits. By last summer, more than a dozen states had passed laws granting different versions of pandemic-related immunity to businesses.

Activists allege that meatpacking facilities in Nebraska are still unsafe for workers, and are fighting to enshrine protections as Nebraska law. (James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

The Texas law protects health-care providers, businesses, nonprofit organizations, religious institutions and some schools.

Under the new law, a worker making a claim would have to prove that their employer knew of and did not warn them about a condition that would likely expose them to the coronavirus that causes covid-19. Then they would need to show that the business knowingly disregarded government safety standards. A plaintiff would then be required to provide “reliable scientific evidence” to show the employer’s actions led to them contracting the virus.

The Texas Civil Justice League, a legal reform organization focused on protecting businesses, was the primary group supporting the bill’s passage. George Christian, senior counsel for the group, said the bill was meant to get ahead of civil suits that businesses and others anticipated would arise out of the pandemic.

Though he said the bill isn’t blanket immunity and doesn’t protect bad actors, he acknowledged it would be difficult for most cases to make it through the law’s stringent stipulations. Existing Texas law would have made it difficult regardless, but the new bill made the processes clear and easier to follow, Christian added.

Texas state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R), who wrote the bill and chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, echoed Christian’s sentiment.

“Business owners and employees went above and beyond throughout the pandemic to open and operate safely,” Hancock said in a statement after the bill passed the Texas Senate 29 to 1. “They don’t deserve to have their livelihoods destroyed by frivolous lawsuits.”

Elijah and the husband of worker Elnora Brown, Rayford Brown, alleged in their lawsuit that for the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, the meatpacking plant did not take steps to protect its workers.

Elijah, a custodian at the Pilgrim’s Pride facility in Mt. Pleasant, Tex., said she did not go out in public in late April and throughout May 2020 — except for work or to run essential errands.

She took a coronavirus test in late May. Two days later, the lawsuit says, her 61-year-old husband — who was disabled and homebound — was dead from covid-19. Four days later, she learned she had tested positive.

The suit alleges the company “placed profits over safety,” keeping the plant open for all of 2020 as more than 400 workers got sick and several died. Elijah and Elnora Brown were not required to wear masks or face shields until late May or early June, the suit said.

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.’s motion to dismiss said the lawsuit did not meet the new law’s “heavy burdens” and rejected the suit on several other grounds.

Debbie Berkowitz, director of the Worker Safety and Health program at the National Employment Law Project, said workers’ protections were already fragile.

“It’s allowing employers to get away with a kind of egregious conduct that should not be allowed in this country,” she said.

Lawyers for Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment on the case.

Read more: