Six killed and eleven injured at Gainesville, Georgia Poultry Plant

On January 28, 2021, a line carrying liquid nitrogen ruptured at a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, killing six people and injuring eleven others. The plant was known as the Prime Pak Foods plant until it was bought by the Foundation Food Group in early January 2021.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, blamed the accident on the facility’s failure to follow safety protocols: “Had simple safety protocols been followed today, workers’ lives wouldn’t have been on the line. The egregious lack of standards at nonunion facilities like the one in Gainesville cost essential workers their lives today.”

Unfortunately, it is likely that the majority of people hurt in the Gainesville accident were employees of Foundation Food Group, the poultry company that owns the plant.

Misclassifying employees and independent contractors to avoid responsibility

Whenever a worker is employed by an employer, the employer has a responsibility to properly identify the worker’s employment status. Two broad categories of worker status include employee (both fulltime and part-time) and independent contractor. Employers have different responsibilities and obligations towards each of these two groups of workers. Virtually all employers are required by Georgia law to provide workers’ compensation insurance for its employees. O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1.

That requirement is good and bad for Georgia employees.  While it requires employers to provide coverage to employees that are injured on the job regardless of fault, it also prevents an employee from suing his employer when that employer’s negligence caused the employee’s injury.  Stated differently, under O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11, an employee’s right to workers’ compensation benefits is the employee’s “exclusive remedy.” This means an employee, or the family of an employee cannot sue an employer for negligently causing the injury or death of an employee.  Workers’ compensation benefits are capped under Georgia law.  This often leaves an injured worker or the family of a dead worker struggling to pay bills and other expenses.

However, employers do not have the same benefits when they negligently injure their independent contractors.  This means that an independent contractor, or the family of an independent contractor, can file a lawsuit against the employer in which damages are not capped by the workers’ compensation rules. Under the law, when an employer acts in a way the contributes to the independent contractor’s death, that employer can be found liable for the independent contractor’s death, whether those acts were intentional or unintentional.  The liable employer must compensate the deceased independent contractor’s family for “the full value of the life” of the independent contractor.  The “full value of the life” of a person almost always exceeds the amount of workers’ compensation benefits to which an employee’s family is entitled.

The US Labor Department estimates that 6-10% of workers are not employees but “independent contractors.”  A person is an “employee” and not an “independent contractor” if the employer “has right to direct time, manner, methods and means of execution of work.”  Orton v. Masquerade, Inc., 311 Ga. App. 656, 657-58 (2011). In contrast, if the worker “is free from any control by employer of time, manner, and method in performance of work” that worker is an “independent contractor.”  Id.

What to do if a loved one was killed at the Foundation Food Group Plant in Gainesville, Georgia

When an employer’s negligence causes the death of an independent contractor, the employer may try to misclassify the independent contractor as an employee to avoid any liability for wrongful death.  That is why it is important to reach out to an experienced wrongful death attorney to discuss your options. Due to the complicated nature of the law, it is possible that you or your family member is an “independent contractor” even if your employer classifies as an “employee.”

If your loved one died in the tragic liquid nitrogen explosion in Gainesville, Georgia, and you would like to discuss your options, the experienced attorneys at Butler Law Firm can answer your questions.