Publix wrongful death lawsuit: Gerardo Gutierrez family blames worker COVID death over face mask policy after contracting coronavirus at a Miami Beach, Florida supermarket chain.
The family of a 70-year-old Publix employee who died from COVID-19 complications earlier this year is suing the grocery chain for allegedly refusing the worker’s request to wear a face mask during work hours amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Gerardo Gutierrez died in April after contracting COVID-19 from a fellow employee at the deli counter inside a Miami Beach, Florida Publix. According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County on Monday, the grocery giant prohibited workers from wearing personal protective gear for fear it would cause panic amid customers.
While Publix eventually reversed course on its face covering rules, it was not before Gutierrez came down with a severe case of coronavirus.
The deli worker was initially told to self-isolate on April 2 and tested positive for the disease less than a week later. He succumbed to the illness and died on April 28, according to family.
‘Gerardo Gutierrez was told by Publix that he could not wear a mask despite the fact that he wanted to wear one, but he continued to go to work each day because he believed Publix’s statements that it was taking all measures necessary to keep him safe,’ the lawsuit reads.
Corporate misconduct ?
‘Publix, however, minimized, downplayed, misrepresented and otherwise concealed the risk posed to its employee by its prohibition on masks and other personal protective equipment.’
Read a statement from the law firm in part, ‘You have a company like Publix that profited greatly throughout the pandemic on the backs of employees like Gerardo Gutierrez, and you’d imagine the least they could do for those people who showed up at work was to protect their own employees.’
‘We believe this story needs to be heard in court. Not only because Gerry’s children deserve justice, but because corporate misconduct like this ought to be brought to light. Decisions like the ones Gerry’s employer made led directly to his infection and his eventual death, far from the comfort and physical presence of his loved ones.’
The lawsuit, which is seeking $30,000 in damages, also cites complaints from other workers, who were similarly told they would have to choose between working and wearing protective gear.
Given choice between not working with protection or going home
‘At least one PUBLIX employee was reportedly told, ‘You can either work without a mask or go home,’’ the suit reads.
‘Making matters worse, another employee reported, ‘We have been instructed to not wear gloves or masks in case we ‘incite panic’ on the floor. There is disciplinary action if we refuse to remove them.’’
Publix’ directive that its employees not wear masks came as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told healthy Americans earlier in the year not to wear masks unless they were showing symptoms. At that time, the public health agency feared that rising demand for masks would prevent frontline health workers from getting as many as they needed as infection rates climbed during the first wave of the pandemic.
It wasn’t until April 3 that the CDC recommended that everyone cover their faces in settings where 6 feet of distancing is difficult to maintain, including supermarkets.
According to a statement on its website, all Publix employees have been required to wear a face covering beginning at the end of April. It previously required that its shoppers wear masks starting in July.
‘We value the health and safety of our associates and customers,’ the statement reads.
‘The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidance as it continues to learn more about the coronavirus. Their recommendations indicate wearing any type of face-covering in public places can help slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a result during this national emergency, we are requiring associates to wear face coverings, beginning April 20.’
Of note, a Tampa Bay Times report on April 30, described the supermarket chain had yet to consistently adopt a mask policy, while lagging behind their competitors at the time.
Publix isn’t the only retail chain to come under fire as Walmart as well as Tyson Foods face lawsuits by employees over coronavirus deaths. Anticipating more, federal and Florida lawmakers have debated legislations to prevent workers from suing their employers if they contract COVID-19 on the job.