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Lawsuit claims Publix policies led 70-year-old deli worker to contract coronavirus, die

Florida-based supermarket 'chose to protect sales' over health, didn't take 'timely action' to protect employee, lawsuit alleges
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Posted at 10:07 AM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 10:24:48-05

MIAMI — A South Florida family has filed a lawsuit against Publix, claiming the supermarket chain's unsafe practices contributed to the death of a 70-year-old employee who had been exposed to the coronavirus while working in the deli.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Miami-Dade County circuit court, seeks in excess of $30,000 in damages for the family of Gerardo Gutierrez, who died in April as a result of complications caused by COVID-19.

Gutierrez worked in the deli department at a Publix in Miami Beach.

According to the lawsuit, Publix prohibited employees from wearing masks and gloves as the coronavirus was spreading throughout Florida in March.

"Gerardo Gutierrez was told by Publix that he could not wear a mask despite the fact that he wanted to wear one, but he continued to go to work each day because he believed Publix's statements that it was taking all measures necessary to keep him safe," attorneys Michael E. Levine and A. Dax Bello wrote in their lawsuit. "Publix, however, minimized, downplayed, misrepresented and otherwise concealed the risk posed to its employee by its prohibition on masks and other personal protective equipment."

The lawsuit alleges that Publix "was more concerned with protecting its sales and profits" and didn't want to incite panic in customers who would be "turned off" seeing employees wearing masks.

"Publix intentionally chose to protect sales over the health and well-being of its employees and customers knowing that employees, especially a 70-year-old employee working next to a sick co-worker, such as Gerardo Gutierrez, would be exposed to COVID-19 and die," the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez's co-worker at the deli "was exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19" in late March, but Publix "failed to send her home." Shortly thereafter, the employee, named in the lawsuit as "Jane Doe," tested positive, so Publix sent Gutierrez home on April 2 and told him to self-isolate.

"He complied, but it was too little, too late," the lawsuit said.

Gutierrez experienced symptoms of COVID-19 on April 6, was hospitalized on April 10 and died on April 28, Levine and Bello stated in a timeline of events.

Publix announced on March 30 that it would allow employees the option to wear gloves and masks. The Florida-based supermarket didn't require customers at all stores to wear masks until July 21.

The lawsuit contends that Publix knowingly put Gutierrez at risk and "had been warned that its policies with respect to employee use of personal protective equipment were woefully inadequate and causing employees to become sick, but failed to take timely action."

Publix did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.