The family of a 70-year-old Florida Publix worker who died from the coronavirus in April is suing the supermarket chain, claiming its prohibition against workers wearing masks at the start of the pandemic directly caused his death.
“Because of its careless decisions, our father is not here with us today,” Gerardo “Gerry” Gutierrez’s daughter, Ariane Gutierrez, said in a statement Monday following the filing of her wrongful death lawsuit. The suit, filed in Miami-Dade County, seeks $30,000 in damages.
Gutierrez was working at a Miami Beach store’s deli in late March when a co-worker began coughing and showing other signs of COVID-19, according to the lawsuit. At the time, employees of the Florida-based chain were prohibited from wearing protective face masks, with the company telling them masks would scare customers.
Gutierrez’s co-worker was not sent home until days later, after she tested positive for the virus, according to the suit. Gutierrez, on April 2, was asked to self-isolate as a precaution.
Gutierrez soon showed signs of the virus, including a cough and a fever, and was hospitalized. He died alone on April 28 following a video call with his four adult children, his family said.
“The sudden passing of our father has been a devastating loss to our family,” Ariane Gutierrez said. “Our family is in shock that Publix would prevent its employees from staying safe.”
A Publix representative did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Tuesday.
It wasn’t until after Gutierrez fell ill that Publix began allowing its employees to wear masks and gloves at work. This came after rival grocery chains, including Kroger, began allowing employees to wear masks, according to the family’s lawsuit.
“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,” said the family’s attorney, Michael Levine. “And then to learn they wouldn’t let their employees wear masks, because they thought it would scare off their customers. That’s just very troubling.”
As the pandemic tightened its grip on the U.S. in the spring, federal health officials initially urged people against wearing masks so they wouldn’t drain scarce supplies from medical workers. At the time, scientists didn’t know how easily the virus spreads through the air. Face masks are now widely recommended.
Other companies face similar lawsuits.
Walmart was sued in April by the family of a worker at an Illinois store who contracted the virus and died. The man’s family accused the retailer of failing to adequately screen and protect workers or follow federal health safety guidelines.
The family of an Ohio meatpacker who died from COVID-19 in April sued Tyson Foods in October, alleging the company failed to protect its employees.
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