A teenage worker died in a poultry factory.  His mother is suing the Georgia-based company that hired him, WABE

The mother of a 16-year-old who died in an industrial accident at a Mississippi poultry plant is suing the companies that hired and employed him, accusing them of failing to meet safety standards that could have prevented his death.

In court papers filed last week in Forest County Circuit Court, attorneys for Edilma Perez Ramirez said Mar-Jac Poultry circumvented security precautions, resulting in the death of her son, Duvan Perez. The lawsuit follows a January report from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration that found numerous safety violations related to the death of the teenager, who immigrated to Mississippi from Guatemala years ago.

“Mar-Jac and its subsidiaries have a long and sordid history of willful disregard for workplace safety,” the lawsuit says.

A Mar-Jac spokesman did not respond to email and phone messages Tuesday. In previous statements, the company said it relied on a recruiting agency to hire workers and was unaware that Duvan was a minor. Federal labor law prohibits the hiring of minors in several hazardous workplaces, including slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

In July, Duvan became the third worker to die in less than three years at the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, plant owned by Mar-Jac, a Georgia-based poultry production company.

In 2020, 33-year-old Joel Velasco Toto died after a co-worker “inserted an air compression tube into his rectum,” the lawsuit says. In 2021, 48-year-old Bobby Butler died after becoming caught in a machine he was cleaning.

Occupational safety officials opened an investigation into Duvan's death in July. OSHA investigators determined he was killed while performing a deep cleaning of a machine in the plant's disassembly area. He became caught in the rotating shaft of a machine that was still energized and was pulled in, officials said.

The lawsuit says Mar-Jac allowed Duvan to clean the equipment despite his age and alleged inadequate training.

Lawyers for Perez Ramirez also sued Onin Staffing, an Alabama-based company that does business in Mississippi. The staffing agency hired Duvan to work at the factory even though it knew he was a minor, the lawsuit says. After Duvan's death, Onin filed a lawsuit with the state to avoid paying workers' compensation, the lawsuit says.

Onin did not respond to emailed questions Tuesday.

Federal investigators said plant managers should have ensured that workers unplugged the machine and followed measures to prevent the machine from accidentally restarting during cleaning. They sued Mar-Jac for workplace violations and proposed penalties in excess of $200,000.

OSHA 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 one hospitalization due to a fall.

After the accident, Labor Department officials said Duvan's death was a reminder that children continue to face exploitation in the U.S. workplace.

In a written statement, Seth Hunter, one of Perez Ramirez's attorneys, said Mar-Jac's customers, including Chick-fil-A, should insist on improved working conditions or stop doing business with the company.

Duvan “was hardworking and loved his family,” Hunter said. “One of the things he was most proud of was paying for his first car himself. It is a tragedy that this young person’s life was taken when his death was easily preventable.”


Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.