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CORRECTED-JBS ordered to pay $3.6 mln after Brazil beef plant's COVID outbreak

(Corrects size of costs related to proceedings to 20,000 reais in paragraph 5, and size of workforce to 145,000 in paragraph 6)

SAO PAULO, March 19 (Reuters) - A court has ordered JBS SA to pay 20 million reais ($3.62 million) in damages after an outbreak of COVID-19 at a beef plant in northern Brazil, according to a copy of the ruling seen by Reuters on Friday.

The damages ruling was related to workers’ contamination in São Miguel do Guaporé, where JBS is the town’s biggest employer. It marks the first victory for the plaintiffs since labor prosecutors started suing the company last year over a lack of adequate health protocols, Labor Prosecutor Priscila Schvarcz told Reuters.

JBS faced at least 18 lawsuits in specialized labor courts last year as prosecutors sought to force the world’s biggest meatpacker to implement stricter worker protections in multiple facilities.

The JBS plant in São Miguel do Guaporé was the main source of contamination and spread of the virus there, a local judge said as he ordered the plant shut last May.

In the ruling dated March 14, Labor Judge Edilson Cortez ordered JBS to pay damages and an additional 20,000 reais to cover costs related to the proceedings. The ruling also entails a series of obligations such as helping test workers with COVID symptoms and imposing a 1.8 meter (6 ft)distance between them at the production line.

JBS declined to say whether it would appeal, saying it does not comment on ongoing litigation and adding that its main goal is to protect the health and security of its 145,000 workforce in Brazil.

Labor prosecutor Helena Romera said in such types of lawsuits, damages paid are reverted to the community. In this case, it could be used to buy health equipment to fight the pandemic. But JBS may still appeal, she noted.

Outbreaks struck at least 23 JBS facilities in seven states in Brazil last year, helping to fuel the pandemic across South America’s largest country.

The nation has the world’s second-deadliest outbreak behind the United States, with over 287,000 deaths and 11.7 million confirmed cases.

$1 = 5.5236 reais Reporting by Ana Mano; Editing by Dan Grebler

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