A hearing in the class-action lawsuit against the Cargill meat-packing plant near High River, Alta., was held Thursday in Calgary with the judge reserving a decision on how the case will proceed.
The lawsuit, which was initially filed in mid-2020 by the Calgary-based Guardian Law Group and James H. Brown and Associates, alleges that Cargill should have known that a lack of preventative measures could impact close contacts of employees.
The COVID-19 outbreak at the facility was at one point the largest in North America.
Mathew Farrell, a lawyer at Guardian Law Group representing the plaintiff, told CBC News prior to the hearing that workers' families "deserve to be able to hold this company to account for the specific wrongdoing that this specific company did."
"Part of this was about making sure that businesses knew from the get-go that, look, you have a responsibility. There are things you can do to protect your workers and you have to do them or the courts will hold you accountable," Farrell said.
Cargill's defence stated it would be unreasonable to hold the company accountable for the "legally indeterminate" spread of infection from the workers.
A spokesperson with Cargill did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
The class action concerns those people who had close contact with employees. The workers themselves are covered by labour and workers' compensation laws.
The deaths of three people were linked to the factory's COVID outbreaks. Two were employees. The third was a worker's father, Armando Sallegue, who had travelled to Alberta to visit his son.
The outbreak is the subject of a police investigation, though no charges have been laid.
Criminology professor unsurprised at lawsuit
Steven Bittle, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said he isn't surprised at the existence of the lawsuit, given the company's "inability or unwillingness to address the safety concerns around the COVID pandemic."
History shows that such class action lawsuits are difficult to win, Bittle said, especially when one is dealing with large companies with deep pockets that can contest issues in court.
"This is one of the tools that people have tried more in the United States, this class-action route, to try to get some justice and compensation for the situation," he said. "It's highly unusual."
The plaintiff's case involves a claim that the risks were known by the company and that the company did not adequately adjust to meet those risks, Bittle said.
He said the company, meanwhile, has made the argument that even if they had a legal duty to protect workers, they cannot be held responsible for that secondary victimization.
"I think the employer will try to argue in this case that they're not responsible for the pandemic," he said.
Meanwhile, Bittle said the lawsuit speaks to the level of frustration people have associated with what happened at the plant.
"In this case, we could call it the death, the secondary victimization that happened when somebody came home with the virus and passed it on to somebody else," he said. "Without any accountability here, there is a real sense of a lack of justice."
Farrell, the lawyer with Guardian Law Group, said he is unsure at this time whether the judge presiding over the case will provide a written or oral decision.
The plaintiff wants the issue of certification of the class-action lawsuit to be heard first. Cargill wants its application to strike the plaintiff's statement of claim for want of cause of action to take priority. The judge has reserved a decision.