(Reuters) - An Illinois state judge on Wednesday denied McDonald’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the company has created a “public nuisance” by failing to protect workers at Chicago restaurants amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ruling from the bench during a videoconference hearing, Cook County Circuit Judge Eve Reilly in Chicago rejected claims by McDonald’s and its lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan that government health and worker safety agencies had jurisdiction over claims involving its response to the pandemic.
Whether McDonald’s has followed guidelines issued by those agencies is “a factual dispute … which the court is very well suited to handle,” Reilly said.
Illinois-based McDonald’s in a statement said it was disappointed with the decision, but confident it would ultimately prevail in the lawsuit, filed last month by five McDonald’s employees and their family members.
”The safety protocols in question in this lawsuit are already in place in Chicago and our 14,000 restaurants around the country,” the company said.
Daniel Rosenthal of James & Hoffman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that he was pleased with the ruling.
”We look forward to presenting our evidence at the upcoming preliminary injunction hearing” scheduled for Thursday, he said.
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction directing the company to distribute protective equipment to workers and require customers and employees to wear masks.
They claim McDonald’s failure to adopt measures urged by government agencies and provide adequate equipment endangers the health of workers and the surrounding community. The workers are not seeking monetary damages.
McDonald’s had argued in a motion to dismiss last month that state and local agencies with expertise in public health were better suited to decide whether the company has taken sufficient steps to protect workers. And any court ruling could clash with guidance issued by those agencies, the company said.
But the plaintiffs in their lawsuit claimed they had filed at least four complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the federal agency had not conducted inspections of any of the restaurants.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rosenthal argued for the workers that government agencies have been hampered by the pandemic, and there was no evidence that they were investigating the restaurants where the plaintiffs work.
And courts could avoid conflicts with those agencies by simply ordering companies like McDonald’s to comply with the guidance that they issue, he said.
Reilly agreed, and said that even if government agencies have primary jurisdiction over worker safety issues, that does not automatically preclude McDonald’s employees from pursuing their claims in court.
The case is Massey v. McDonald’s Corp, Cook County Circuit Court, No. 2020-CH-4247.
For the plaintiffs: Daniel Rosenthal of James & Hoffman and Stephen Yokich of Dowd Bloch Bennett Cervone Auerbach & Yokich
For McDonald’s: Jonathan Bunge of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan