MDL judge advances most paraquat claims against Syngenta, Chevron

The bio-technology company Syngenta's research farm near Junction City
The only sign for the bio-technology company Syngenta's research farm is this one made from native limestone near Junction City, Kansas, U.S. May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Dave Kaup
  • "Critical milestone" for exposed farmers, say their lawyers
  • Judge tosses public-nuisance claims; greenlights suits for individual injuries
  • First bellwether trial planned for November

(Reuters) - Hundreds of agricultural workers and others who say they developed Parkinson’s disease as a result of occupational exposure to the herbicide paraquat can proceed with most of their claims against Syngenta Corp. and Chevron USA, a federal judge in southern Illinois ruled Monday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Nancy Rosenstengel, who is handling the multidistrict litigation, denied Syngenta and Chevron’s motions to dismiss claims for strict product liability, negligence, breach of implied warranty and violation of several states’ consumer protection laws.

However, Rosenstengel agreed with the defendants’ lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis, Jones Day and Husch Blackwell that the plaintiffs’ public nuisance count was a “simple repackaging” of their product liability claims.

“They seek damages for their alleged injuries rather than abatement of any true public nuisance,” Rosenstengel wrote.

In a joint statement, the plaintiffs’ three lead attorneys hailed the ruling as a win.

“This is a critical milestone for the thousands of farmers and agricultural workers” who were exposed to paraquat “and now have a debilitating disease for which there is no cure,” court-appointed co-lead counsel Khaldoun Baghdadi of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger; Sarah Shoemake Doles of Carey  Danis & Lowe; and Peter Flowers of Meyers & Flowers said in a joint statement.

Syngenta, Chevron and their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Statements on their websites say that paraquat is safe when used as directed.

Paraquat has been on the market since the mid-1960s but has been banned in more than 30 countries. It is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only for licensed commercial users.

The herbicide is currently marketed in the U.S. by Syngenta under the brand name Gramoxone, and was distributed before 1986 by Chevron. It has become more popular in recent years, partly thanks to weeds becoming resistant to Bayer AG’s Roundup.

The plaintiffs say Syngenta and Chevron were aware of scientific studies documenting a link between occupational exposure to paraquat and an elevated risk of developing Parkinson's – a degenerative brain disease that leads to tremors and loss of muscle coordination – but that they failed to warn users.

Early last year, several plaintiffs sought to consolidate 14 cases that had been filed in federal courts across the country for pretrial proceedings before a single judge. Syngenta and Chevron did not oppose the motion.

By the time the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation assigned the actions to Rosenstengel in June, another 77 cases had been filed. At present, there are nearly 600, according to the JPML’s statistics.

Rosenstengel expects to hold a bellwether trial in November.

The case is In re Paraquat Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Illinois, No. 21-md-03004.

For the plaintiffs: Co-lead counsel Khaldoun Baghdadi of  Walkup,  Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, Sarah Shoemake Doles of  Carey  Danis & Lowe; Peter Flowers of Meyers & Flowers

For Syngenta: Ragan Naresh of Kirkland & Ellis

For Chevron: Leon DeJulius Jr and Jihan Walker of Jones Day; Megan Scheiderer of Husch Blackwell

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