Regional farmers join legal actions against Syngenta

N.D. —By: Mikkel Pates, Ag Week, Published January 16, 2015, 03:54 PM

Northern Plains farmers are getting into the legal fray over Syngenta’s alleged premature release of a genetically modified (GM) corn variety. The commercial release to U.S. farmers allegedly led to China stopping imports of U.S. corn and distillers grains from November 2013 through much of 2014.

Plaintiffs in several federal court cases allege Syngenta knowingly released corn variety Agrisure Viptera before its MIR 162 traits against pests such as corn borer and rootworm were approved China. The National Grain and Feed Association last spring estimated the U.S. industry suffered a $2.9 billion hit in reduced corn prices because of the market rejections.

Syngenta AG is based in the Minneapolis area and has a Swiss parent estimated to be worth more than $24 billion.

Syngenta lawyers have said the lawsuits are “without merit.” The company submitted the varieties to the Chinese government for approval in March 2010. The traits were finally approved by China in December 2014, but not before the alleged damage.

Cargill Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., filed a suit in Louisiana state court in September 2014, asking for damage compensation. Archer Daniels Midland Co. filed suit in November, also in Louisiana state court.

Local cases

Minneapolis lawyer James B. Hovland this week filed individual suits in U.S. District Court in Fargo on behalf of five North Dakota farmers. The Hovland firm is connected to a coordinated effort that includes a couple dozen farmer suits in South Dakota and about 200 cases by Minnesota farmers. The farmers don’t ask for specific damages, but Hovland said industry estimates he’s seen have ranged from 11 cents to $1 per bushel.

Tim Forward of Oakes, N.D., was one of the named plaintiffs filed Jan. 14 by Hovland. Forward says his family’s operations total up to about 4,000 acres of corn production during the affected years. He says he isn’t sure how much of the corn price declines were from the Chinese rejections, but says his family should get compensation, if it’s due.

“There may be some financial benefit,” Forward says.

Hovland and his Hovland and Rasmus PLLC firm is linked to attorney Mikal Watts of the Watts Guerra LLP firm in San Antonio, Texas, one of a handful vying for leadership in the case, nationally. Other cases have been filed separately in Minnesota state courts, though Syngenta says it prefers them in federal court.

Hovland says the initial cases were filed several months ago and now are being referred to federal Court. U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrom of Kansas City, Kan., is in the process of deciding whether they’ll become a class action suit or be treated as a mass tort.

Hovland and his colleagues prefer a mass tort case because it would involve more individual firms and corn farmer clients would be handled more individually. He says class action suits can end in getting a “free bag of seed or some (sale) credit,” while a mass tort can provide “better recovery for the farmers.”

Legal marketing

Law firms are getting active in gathering clients. Some firms have started advertising for clients in the region.

Hovland is coming to North Dakota in early February to hold town hall informational meetings in Wahpeton, Jamestown, Fargo, Oakes, Mayville, Grand Forks and perhaps Ellendale.

“We’re concentrating on the Red River Valley — the south and eastern part of the state to provide informational meetings on the cause of action,” he says.

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