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Publix seeks to muzzle parties in coronavirus wrongful death suit

The grocery chain also denies a claim that an employee died because of its early pandemic mask policy.
Gerardo Gutierrez, 70, died from complications related to COVID-19. A lawsuit filed by his family says he contracted the virus while working at a Publix deli counter during a period the grocer forbid workers from using masks.
Gerardo Gutierrez, 70, died from complications related to COVID-19. A lawsuit filed by his family says he contracted the virus while working at a Publix deli counter during a period the grocer forbid workers from using masks. [ The Gutierrez family ]
Published Mar. 25, 2021|Updated Mar. 25, 2021

Publix is asking a judge to silence a South Florida woman and her lawyer who claim the grocery chain is responsible for the death of a former deli worker at the start of the pandemic.

The lawsuit brought by Ariane Gutierrez claims the company prohibited her 70-year-old father, Gerardo Gutierrez, from wearing a mask at a Miami Beach store. It claims the father, Gerardo Gutierrez, contracted COVID-19 from a coworker and died.

In its motion, Publix said the claim is “littered with inflammatory and wholly unsupported rhetoric.” It accused the daughter and her lawyer, Michael Levine, of leveraging the press to influence potential jurors and sway public opinion.

Neither Publix nor the Guitierrez family’s lawyer, Michael Levine, would comment on the lawsuit’s latest update.

The motion for protective order would prevent Gutierrez’s family, as well as their lawyer, from commenting on the case or related evidence, as well as disclosing pretrial information to the press and “unnecessary third parties.”

The grocery chain’s motion also claimed Ariane Gutierrez had “smeared Publix’s name” by telling reporters the company had not allowed her father to wear personal protective equipment and did not create proper procedures for protecting him from the virus.

The family is seeking over $30,000 in damages. In early February, a judge denied Publix’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which the company argued should be settled in worker’s compensation court. None of Gutierrez’s four adult children would be considered benefactors under Florida worker’s compensation law.

An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times early last spring found that Publix was slower than other Florida grocery stores in implementing pandemic safety precautions.

At the time, Publix told the Times it was following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which initially discouraged the general public from masking so more protective equipment would be available for first responders. It wasn’t until April that the store allowed employees to wear masks and it did not employ some of the same safety measures common among other grocers at the time, such as limiting the number of customers in its stores or taking every employee’s temperature.

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