Fighting Back

Rice farmer is awarded $500,000 in case over crop contamination

by Robert Patrick, StlToday

A federal jury in St. Louis awarded $500,248 on Wednesday to a farmer who claimed that he and his family had lost just over $1.5 million when genetically modified rice contaminated the U.S. rice supply.

The trial, which lasted more than three weeks, is the fifth trial in federal and state courts in which farmers have been awarded damages. In all, hundreds of lawsuits filed by thousands of farmers and others against Bayer CropScience have alleged that the release of LibertyLink, a herbicide-resistant rice, into the rice supply cost farmers millions.

The release was announced in August 2006, before the rice had been approved for sale for human consumption. It has since been approved but has not been commercially marketed.

Rice futures initially plunged on the news.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Bayer lawyer Mark Ferguson said that the price quickly recovered and that farmers who waited suffered only small losses. Ferguson acknowledged that Denny Deshotels and his family had suffered some loss, but did not name an amount in closing arguments.

Ferguson also said that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had not proven that Bayer was negligent.

Don Downing, a lawyer for Deshotels, of Lettsworth, La., said that the family farmer lost more than a million when the market plunged, and faced additional costs of switching crops and cleaning equipment of LibertyLink rice.

“It was Bayer’s carelessness, and Denny Deshotels was hurt,” he told jurors.

A series of so-called “bellwether” trials were initially set up to allow representative cases to proceed to trial. The outcome gives both plaintiffs and defendants a hint of what may come in the other pending cases — and an opportunity to work out a settlement.

In December, jurors awarded $2 million to farmers. A different jury, also in federal court in St. Louis, awarded $1.5 million to farmers in February. Neither jury awarded punitive damages, and in the Deshotels case, they were not given the option because of Louisiana law.

In two state trials in Arkansas, jurors also had found in favor of farmers, Downing said. A spokesman said jurors awarded farmers $1 million in the first trial and $48 million in the second, including punitive damages of $42 million in the second trial.

Deshotels, in a prepared statement, said he and his family were “very happy.”

“I hope that the result of this trial and the results of the previous trials opens Bayer’s eyes as to the difficulties U.S. long grain rice farmers have faced since the contamination … and that they make things right for all other rice farmers affected,” he said.

In their own statement, Bayer CropScience said it disagreed with the verdict and would “consider its legal options.”

“Bayer CropScience looks forward to working with those parties who approach discussions of economic loss with an appropriate frame of reference,” said Bruce Mackintosh, general counsel for Bayer CropScience L.P. in that statement.

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