Big news came out of Kansas this morning with regards to the class action lawsuit pitting Kansas corn farmers against Syngenta. A jury has awarded $217 million to a class of Kansas corn farmers.
We have discussed the factual background of the case in far more detail on prior blog posts (click here), but the basic facts are set forth below. In 2010, Syngenta released Viptera and Duracade seed varieties, which were approved to be grown in the United States, but were not approved for export to China by the Chinese government. In 2013, US corn shipments arrived in China and were rejected due to the presence of the MIR-162 trait found in Viptera and Duracade. Shortly thereafter, US corn prices fell. Farmers who did not plant the seeds have filed suit against Syngenta essentially claiming that Syngenta breached a duty owed to the farmers by harming what plaintiffs contend was a key export market for corn, causing monetary damages to the farmers.
Tens of thousands of lawsuits were filed across the United States, and the vast majority were consolidated in “Multi-District Litigation” in the District of Kansas federal court. In that MDL litigation, the plaintiffs sought to certify 21 classes of farmer plaintiffs, divided by state. The following states were included in the list of proposed classes: AL, AR, CO, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, MI, MN, MS, MO, NE, ND, OH, OK, SD, TN, TX, and WI. The specific legal claims made differ for each class. All classes assert a negligence claim and certain states may have additional statutory claims based upon the law in that jurisdiction.
Initially, the court heard class certification motions and certified 8 state classes: AR, IL, IA, KS, MO, NE, OH, and SD. The remaining proposed classes have yet to be considered for certification by the court. For the 8 state classes certified, those included as plaintiffs are defined as persons listed on the FSA For 578 who priced corn for sale after November 18, 2013. Excluded from the definition are those people who purchased Viptera or Duracade and certain producers who filed individual lawsuits against Syngenta on these same facts. Farmers in certified classes had the chance to opt out, which required express action to be taken. Anyone meeting the definition who did not opt out, remained in the class.
Of that 8 state classes certified, it was the Kansas class selected to go to trial first. This case involved over 7,300 plaintiffs and only a negligence claim. They sought both actual and punitive damages. After a trial that lasted over 2 weeks, the jury returned a verdict this morning in favor of the farmers. They found that the class proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Syngenta was negligent and proved damages of $217,700,000. Further, the jury found that Syngenta failed to prove its defense of a superseding cause by a preponderance of the evidence. Lastly, the jury found that the plaintiffs failed to prove punitive damages should be awarded. [View jury verdict form here.]
Not surprisingly, the two sides viewed the verdict very differently. Syngenta fears that this type of verdict will harm farmers as it will deny them access to improved crop technology even when legally approved for growing here in the United States. “American farmers shouldn’t have to rely on a foreign government to decide what products they can use on their farms,” said Syngenta in a statement. Attorneys for the class praised the verdict, calling it “great news” and saying they look forward to similar results for farmers in other states in the months to come.
What Happens Next?
The litigation will likely roll on. In the Kansas case, Syngenta certainly has the right to appeal the jury’s decision. Syngenta has already indicated that it intends to do just that.
In the other 7 states where certification has occurred, trials will continue to be held for those various classes and their specific claims. For those states that have not yet been certified, including Texas and Oklahoma, it is a bit of a waiting game to see when the attorneys decide to move forward and seek class certification of those claims.
New York Times, Kansas Jury Awards $218M to Farmers in Syngenta GMO Suit