Mother of 16-year-old who died at Mississippi poultry plant files lawsuit

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — The mother of a 16-year-old who died in a workplace accident at a poultry processing plant in Mississippi has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company and staffing agency that hired him, accusing them of negligence and failing to follow safety standards.

Duvan Perez, an indigenous Mayan from Guatemala, died last July at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing facility in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The teenager was cleaning equipment when he was pulled into the machine, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

His mother, Edilma Perez Ramirez, filed the lawsuit last week at the Forest County Circuit Court. She is seeking an unspecified amount of expenses and damages, including compensatory and punitive damages, which will be determined by a jury.

Jim Reeves, Ramirez's attorney, said Mar-Jac Poultry failed to correct safety issues it had known existed for a long time. The lawsuit follows OSHA's report in January where federal investigators determined that inadequate safety standards, including numerous safety violations, led to the death of the teenager.

"Perez was hard-working and loved his family," Reeves said in a statement. "One of the things he was most proud of was paying for his first car himself. It is a tragedy that this young life was taken when his death was easily preventable.”

Mar-Jac Poultry accused of skirting safety standards

In the complaint, attorneys for Ramirez accused Mar-Jac Poultry of circumventing safety protections. They also alleged the companies involved and employees at the companies of "willfully violat(ing) numerous safety rules and obligations causing the injuries and death of (Duvan)."

On July 14, 2023, Duvan was performing a deep clean of the deboning area at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant. According to OSHA's January report, he was then caught in the rotating shaft and pulled into the machinery, resulting in fatal injuries.

The lawsuit says that Mar-Jac Poultry allowed Duvan to clean the equipment despite his age and alleged improper training. According to federal child labor law, anyone younger than 18 is not permitted to work in a meat processing plant because of the dangerous equipment.

"Mar-Jac and its affiliates have a long and sordid history of willful disregard for worker safety," Reeves wrote in the complaint. "For example, in 2009, OSHA proposed almost $380,000 in penalties against Mar-Jac and its affiliates for health and safety violations. They were cited for four 'willful violations' (including) failure to establish specific procedures to maintain the integrity of processing equipment."

Among the damages sought in the lawsuit are medical-related expenses; funeral and burial costs; and the value of Duvan's future earnings. The suit also seeks compensation for the loss of family caused by Duvan's untimely death and the enjoyment of his life.

"These working conditions have to change," Reeves said. "Chick-fil-A is one of Mar-Jac’s largest customers. It and other Mar-Jac customers should insist on better working conditions or stop doing business with them."

Mar-Jac Poultry declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Mar-Jac denied knowing Duvan Perez was a minor

Company officials denied knowing Duvan was a minor and said his identification indicated he was a 32-year-old man. Mar-Jac Poultry said it relied on a staffing agency, Onin Staffing, to hire workers for the poultry plant.

Attorneys for Ramirez are also suing Onin Staffing, an Alabama-based company that does business in Mississippi, claiming the company was negligent when it assigned Duvan to work at the plant despite knowing he was a minor.

About two weeks after Duvan's death, Onin Staffing filed a notice with the state Workers Compensation Commission denying Onin was the teenager's employer, according to the complaint.

Mar-Jac cited for numerous safety violations in recent years

Duvan was the latest death at the Mar-Jac Poultry Plant in the last three years. In 2020, 33-year-old Joel Velasco Toto died after a co-worker "inserted an air-compression hose into his rectum," the lawsuit says. In 2021, 48-year-old Bobby Butler died after becoming entangled in a machine he was cleaning.

OSHA had issued at least eight citations for safety violations at the plant before Duvan’s death, the lawsuit says. These include the deaths of Toto and Butler, three amputations, and a hospitalization due to a fall.

Duvan's death made national headlines, sparking criticism from activists and federal officials. The fatal incident led to the Department of Labor's investigation into how Mar-Jac Poultry hired Perez and a separate OSHA investigation into the incident itself.

In addition to illegally hiring Duvan, investigators found that safety procedures were not used to disconnect power to the machine where the teenager had become entangled and "lockout/tagout" procedures, were not used to prevent the machine from unintentionally starting during the cleaning.

In OSHA's January report, investigators cited Mar-Jac Poultry for 14 serious violations and three others along with proposing over $200,000 in penalties.

"Mar-Jac Poultry is aware of how dangerous the machinery they use can be when safety standards are not in place to prevent serious injury and death," Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA regional administrator in Atlanta, said in a statement last month. "The company's inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child's preventable death."

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mar-Jac Poultry death: Mother of teen who died in plant files suit