Plaintiff lawyer cheered in Syngenta-corn case
FARGO, N.D. — An early victory in cases against Syngenta is only one step in what could be another year or two of lawsuits and appeals. Some U.S. farmers claim they’re owed money because of the release of a certain genetically modified corn into the market before it was fully accepted.
Michelle Donarski, a shareholder attorney in the Anderson, Bottrell, Sanden & Thompson law firm in Fargo, worked with lead counsel firms in the case for three years. The primary plaintiffs’ lawyers are four firms in St. Louis, Mo., Birmingham, Ala., and Dallas and Houston, Texas. Donarski’s firm acts as local counsel for these bigger firms and gathered participant farmers who have grown corn since 2013 and are allegedly affected by the actions.
The case was tried in Kansas because of that court’s experience and workforce. The Syngenta case is a confusing tangle of litigation involving thousands of plaintiffs in state and federal courts, with many parties making different claims.
On June 23, 2017, in a federal court case in Kansas, a jury returned a $217.7 million verdict in a state negligence claim against Syngenta and in favor of a class of more than 7,300 Kansas corn producer-plaintiffs. Syngenta said it will appeal the Kansas verdict, and claims by other corn producers across the country. Syngenta said the company did nothing improper and China’s regulatory system was to blame.
In the Kansas class action case, the jury unanimously found Syngenta erred in its commercialization of Viptera and Duracade products — both containing the MIR 162 trait. The jury awarded 100 percent of the damage alleged by the plaintiffs and rejected Syngenta’s argument that China’s was the cause of the damages. Farmers who raised corn in the eligible years are members of that class unless they opted out.
The Kansas case was handled by Judge John W. Lungstrum, who has certified classes of corn producers in seven other states — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. Farmers in 21 states account for 94 percent of the U.S. corn production in relevant years.
Plaintiffs allegd Syngenta improperly commercialized Viptera before China approved the particular genetic modification, costing U.S. farmers money and market share. The plaintiffs claimed the losses to farmers ranged from 15.7 cents per bushel from 2013-14 and up to 19.9 cents a bushel from 2015-16, and then declined to about 6.1 cents.
The case so far involved only Kansas farmers and does not set precedent for producers from other states, Donarski said. The cases for other states will be based on state negligence laws, which are different. Donarski said the decision is still good news for plaintiffs in that the jury “heard our experts on liability and on damages, and found that Syngenta is negligent, that it can’t place blame on China and that farmers were damaged.”
She said the same damage and liability experts will testify in subsequent cases involving other states.
The Kansas court is scheduled to hear federal class action cases in groups of one to two states on a schedule into 2018 — Jan. 22 for Arkansas and Missouri, in a case expected to last three to four weeks. After that there is April 4 for Illinois and Nebraska; May 14, South Dakota and Iowa; and Oct. 8 for Ohio.
The federal class action court will look for whether state laws are similar enough to try the cases together. After that, groups of two to four states will be tried together, including Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. No court date has been set for those on the federal class action.
If the plaintiffs continue to have successful verdict awards, the parties could come together and discuss a “global settlement,” she said. Syngenta also could refuse to settle, and more cases could be tried.
Donarski’s firm also is involved in a separate case in Minnesota state court scheduled to go to court in Hennepin County on Sept. 11 in Minneapolis. Minnesota corn growers are not eligible for the national class because they have their own case. It involves only Minnesota farmers who did not plant Viptera and Duracade. In that case, Donarski’s firm helped farmers file claims.
Another case involves groups of individual plaintiffs in Illinois litigation, including Lee Murphy of Dallas and Martin J. Phipps of San Antonio. Progressive Ag Law PLLC, of Fargo, was finding plaintiffs for that case. Syngenta responded to the amended complaint on June 27 — essentially signaling the beginning of that case, although no trial date is set on that case according to the docket. Ray Grabanski, president of the Progressive Ag firm, did not immediately return comment for Agweek.❖
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