Courts

Hickman's Family Farms' Reliance on Prison Labor Is Starting to Yield Lots of Lawsuits

The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah.
The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah. Elizabeth Whitman
click to enlarge The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah.
Elizabeth Whitman
Hickman's Family Farms, which claims to be one of the largest egg producers in the Southwest, was recently hit with several new lawsuits filed by prison inmates who claim that they were severely injured while working for the company.

In all, there are nine. Filed between late 2019 and 2020 in Maricopa County Superior Court by Arizona Department of Corrections inmates, they accuse the company of negligence after inmates were allegedly hurt on the job at the company's egg farms in western Maricopa County.

Hickman's Family Farms, which is co-owned by Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman, has long relied on cheap inmate labor. For over 20 years, the company has used Arizona Department of Corrections inmates as workers — and paid them sub-minimum wages — through an agreement with Arizona Correctional Industries, which is a subdivision of the Department of Corrections that handles inmate labor contracts.

The lawsuits contain a variety of allegations, ranging from hands getting maimed in machinery to falls and car accidents.

Nathan Peshlakai, who filed a lawsuit on November 19, 2019, alleged in his complaint that he suffers from "permanent disfigurement" and a "lack of function in his hand and fingers" after his right hand was caught between a sprocket and a chain while he was adjusting a manure belt. The company eventually settled with Peshlakai in early 2021, online court records state.

Another plaintiff, Noah Moore, also sustained hand injuries while working on a manure belt, according to a lawsuit filed on November 4, 2020. Moore allegedly "suffered mangling and extensive fractures to his right hand" after the incident and had to undergo extensive surgery at the hospital.

Some of the other lawsuits involve on-site car collisions. For instance, Amanda Engler, who filed on October 26, 2020, alleges she suffered a compound fracture in her leg and a fractured knee after a van she was riding in, which was being driven by a Hickman's Family Farms employee, rolled through a stop sign and was struck by a semi-truck whose driver was also a farm employee. Engler alleges the accident was due to the driver texting while driving.

A different inmate, Robert McLaughlin, filed a lawsuit on May 7, 2020, after he fell and fractured his leg while dodging a "mortality cart" that was rolling out of a semi-trailer. (Phoenix New Times spoke with McLaughlin in-depth about his injury back in 2019.) According to the lawsuit, McLaughlin remained in the hospital for over a week after the incident, after which he was transported to the infirmary unit at the Arizona state prison in Florence. His leg did not "heal straight" and he continues to suffer from, among other things, pain, numbness, and a "lack of dexterity and coordination."

McLaughlin is suing both Hickman's Family Farms and the state of Arizona over the incident. He accuses the state of failing to provide proper medical care and the company of negligence by not training its workers, asking him to do a "three to four person task" alone, and failing to supervise him while he handled "dangerous equipment."

The lawsuit states that the Department of Corrections has a "duty to provide a safe environment for inmates in its custody" and a "duty to monitor working conditions at private vendors that utilize prisoner labor." It goes on to assert that the state has "had notice of the dangerous conditions at Hickman's."

Joel Robbins, the attorney representing the inmates in all nine cases, declined to comment, citing the fact that the litigation is "ongoing."

Hickman's Family Farms did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits. Neither did Supervisor Hickman or a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Hickman's Family Farms was sued in 2019 by an inmate who lost her finger while working at an egg farm. The company's chief financial officer blamed the worker for her injury. Phoenix New Times' reporting on the incident prompted an Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health investigation. Another inmate, Michael Gerhart, also sued the company in 2019 after his hand was crushed in machinery. 
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety