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‘This should not have happened,’ lawyer says of 16-year-old’s death at poultry plant

Duvan Perez spent time with his mother and siblings and liked to listen to music and work out at the gym. 

At night, he arrived at Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg to clean machinery used to process chicken for sale in restaurants. He was earning money to buy his own car. 

“He was living the life that you’d expect of a 16-year-old,” said Seth Hunter, a Hattiesburg attorney. 

Until he wasn’t and became the third person to die at the poultry plant in less than three years. 

Duvan Perez, 16, a Hattiesburg middle-schooler, was killed July 14, 2023, while cleaning a deboning machine at Mar-Jac Poultry. Credit: Courtesy of the family’s attorney, Seth Hunter

On the night of July 14, 2023, the Hattiesburg middle-schooler was cleaning a deboning machine when he got caught in a rotating shaft and sprockets and pulled in, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found in an investigation of the incident. 


Federal child labor laws prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from working in meat processing plants because the machinery can be dangerous. 

In court records and a statement released after Duvan’s death, Mar-Jac pointed the finger at its contractor, Onin Staffing, saying it relied on the company headquartered in Birmingham to verify employees’ age, qualifications and training, a wrongful lawsuit filed by the teenager’s mother, Edilma Perez Ramirez, alleges.

Despite this, Mar-Jac allowed Duvan to clean the equipment “without actual or constructive knowledge that Perez was under the legal age to legally perform such job duties,” according to court documents. 

The Feb. 1 lawsuit, filed in the Forrest County Circuit Court, is asking for compensatory damages from Mar-Jac, Onin and other defendants, including damages for funeral and burial costs, pain and suffering and the value of future earnings Duvan would have earned. 

“(The family knows) that this should not have happened,” said Hunter, who is representing the family with Biloxi attorney Jim Reeves. 

The lawsuit alleges Mar-Jac’s procedure for cleaning machinery did not did not follow proper safety procedures and industry standards. Typically, the machine would be disconnected from power and a lockout would be used to prevent the machine from intentionally starting. 

It also alleges Onin allowed Perez to perform a task outside of his scope due to his age and lack of training. 

Attorneys representing Mar-Jac and Onin did not respond to a request for comment. The companies and other defendants have 30 days to respond to the complaint. 

In a statement released shortly after Perez’s death, Mar-Jac said the company “would never knowingly put any employee, and certainly not a minor, in harm’s way” but reiterated that the staffing companies are responsible for verifying age and identification. 

Other defendants named in the lawsuit are Letissha Hill, a human resources and staffing director at Mar-Jac, and John Daniels, a safety supervisor at the plant. Unknown defendants are others who may have worked for either company and those who manufactured and maintained the machinery Perez was operating when he died. 

Hunter said the goal of the lawsuit is to find out why this happened to Perez and seek change to prevent other children from across the country from being placed in dangerous work conditions. 

“They shouldn’t be there in the first place,” he said. 

Perez was indigenous and from Guatemala, according to the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, a Jackson-based nonprofit organization that supports immigrants across the state. 

The lawsuit alleges Mar-Jac has a history of worker safety issues.  

Safety records show OSHA issued at least eight citations for safety violations at the plant before Perez’s death for deaths in 2020 and 2021, three amputations and injuries from a fall that required hospitalization, according to the complaint. 

The lawsuit comes weeks after OSHA cited Mar-Jac for 17 violations in Duvan’s death, and 14 of them were classified as serious, totaling over $212,000 in proposed penalties. 

Mar-Jac could have enforced strict safety standards, but less than a year after Perez’s death, that has not happened. 

“Nothing has changed, and the company continues to treat employee safety as an afterthought, putting its workers at risk,” OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer said in a Jan. 16 statement. 


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