WASHINGTON, Jan 13 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal by organic farmers and others seeking to require Monsanto Co to promise never to sue farmers if their fields inadvertently have plants containing the company's patented genetically modified traits.
A company lawyer said Monsanto had not sued for inadvertent use of its biotech seeds and did not plan to, but that it would not make a blanket promise to that effect. Lower courts held that none of those who sued had been injured.
The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and a group of dozens of organic and conventional family farmers, seed companies and public advocacy interests sued Monsanto in March 2011.
The suit sought to prohibit the company from suing farmers whose fields became inadvertently contaminated with corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and other crops containing Monsanto's genetic modifications.
Monsanto has genetically engineered its specialty seeds to withstand dousings of glyphosate, the main ingredient of the company's Roundup herbicide. The company charges a premium to farmers for use of its seeds and prohibits unauthorized plantings.
But there have been several cases in which the patented genetic traits have been found to have mixed into fields where farmers had not purchased or planted the biotech seeds. Monsanto routinely sues farmers who it says intentionally plant its biotech seeds without paying for the technology, but it has said it will not sue farmers whose fields are accidentally contaminated.
In the suit filed by the organic and conventional growers, the group asked Monsanto for a pre-emptive pledge not to sue them since they do not use the biotech seeds. But Monsanto refused to do so saying a "blanket covenant" not to sue any present or future member of the organizations would enable "virtually anyone to commit intentional infringement."
The biotech crops are widely used throughout the United States.
The group of Monsanto critics lost in district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appeals court decision now stands.
"Monsanto never has and has committed it never will sue if our patented seed or traits are found in a farmer's field as a result of inadvertent means," said Kyle McClain, the company's chief litigation counsel.
"The lower courts agreed there was no controversy between the parties," McClain added, "and the Supreme Court's decision not to review the case brings closure on this matter."
Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and lead counsel to the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the high court's action was disappointing but that "it should not be misinterpreted as meaning that Monsanto has the right to bring such suits."
"Indeed, in light of the court of appeals decision, Monsanto may not sue any contaminated farmer for patent infringement if the level of contamination is less than 1 percent."
Monsanto shares were down 1.5 percent at $111.30 just before the close of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The case is Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al., v. Monsanto Company, et al. Supreme Court Case No. 13-303.