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The Birds Eye vegetable-processing facility in the town of Darien was forced to suspend operations in spring 2020 after a spate of positive coronavirus tests among workers became public knowledge.

DARIEN

A Beloit man is suing the company that owns the Birds Eye food processing plant in Darien because he says unsafe working conditions led to him getting COVID-19 and passing it to his wife, who died last May.

Rigoberto Ruiz is seeking “fair and reasonable compensation for (the) wrongful death of Martha Amador De Ruiz” on May 5, 2020, as well as fees from the case and “whatever relief the court may deem just and equitable.”

On April 18, 2020—just weeks before Ruiz’s wife died—a different Birds Eye employee shared internal company emails with The Gazette about an outbreak at the facility. The Gazette’s story published hours before a company spokesman announced that the plant was suspending operations for several days.

The employee who spoke with The Gazette shared concerns about how the company was handling safety precautions early in the pandemic.

Ruiz’s lawsuit, first filed against Conagra in Walworth County Court in late February, said the company “failed to follow CDC guidelines and general medical advice.”

The company did not enforce any mask policy, and some supervisors failed to address unmasked employees who were within eyesight, according to the lawsuit.

Ruiz caught COVID-19 and brought it home to his wife, who “suffered greatly” from the disease, the lawsuit states.

The company was “negligent in its failure to adopt and enforce policies and procedures which were required by the CDC and indicated by generally understood medical advice so as to prevent the transmission of Covid-19,” according to the lawsuit, which was first reported Friday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Daniel Hare, a company spokesman, sent The Gazette a statement last year when news of the outbreak broke that said, “The health and safety of our employees is our top priority.”

The statement also said the parts of the facility that weren’t closing would have “appropriate physical distance between workers and plexiglass barriers.”

The Walworth County health department first learned of the outbreak from The Gazette, not from Birds Eye, an official said at the time.

Court records show the case has moved to federal court, in the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Conagra filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit March 31, arguing that it is protected under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, known as the PREP Act.

The company argues that it remained open because it was “deemed essential and critical infrastructure” and took steps to prevent disease spread.

“Although (Ruiz’s) wife’s death was a tragedy, as are all COVID-19 deaths, (Ruiz’s) complaint also highlights the COVID-19 challenges that critical infrastructure businesses faced, particularly in the early days of the pandemic,” the company argues in support of its motion to dismiss.

While the company maintains that the PREP Act provides immunity in matters such as this one, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spoke with an attorney who litigates cases for workers and consumers and who said judges nationwide have rejected such claims from nursing homes.

Adam Pulver told the newspaper that the law doesn’t provide immunity for companies that don’t take precautions.

Martha A. Amador de Ruiz was 54 when she died at Beloit Memorial Hospital, according to her obituary.

Born in Mexico, she married her husband in 1990 in Los Angeles and eventually worked at Birds Eye herself. She left in 2015 to become a housewife.

A GoFundMe that appeared to be created by a relative last year said Ruiz himself was quite ill from COVID-19, and he had to be hospitalized and intubated.

The couple, married for 30 years, were only two rooms apart in the hospital.

“Sadly, they were not able to say their goodbyes to each other,” the fundraiser states.

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