Contention reigns as Syngenta corn lawsuit starts bellwether work

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

Syngenta lawsuit sees bellwether contention ©
Syngenta lawsuit sees bellwether contention ©

Related tags Syngenta

An ongoing lawsuit against Syngenta over the sale of its biotech corn seed Viptera has run into some tensions in the bellwether process. 

The lawsuit alleges several producers suffered huge financial damages following the sale of Viptera in the US before the trait was approved for use in China. The case pits Syngenta against Cargill, ADM and several farmer groups.  

The Swiss company has raised several concerns about the process used to include some of the cases picked for the bellwether, or test, discovery pool, and may be planning to request that some cases be dismissed.

Synenta's lawyers said about 15 representatives picked for the bellwether pool were filed the day of the selection, inappropriately filed in Kansas and do not “satisfy venue and personal jurisdiction”​ in the court.

No ruling on the matter has been released from a recent meeting of the interested parties and US District Court Judge John Lungstrum and US Magistrate Judge James O’Hara.

The Syngenta move comes weeks after all parties in the lawsuit had chosen 48 corn farmer lawsuits from eight US states as bellwethers.

Members of plaintiff groups have accused Syngenta of “sandbagging”​ or trying to slow the process down with the challenges, said plaintiff lawyers in case documents.  

Syngenta did not ask for a restriction on when the representatives selected filed their cases, said plaintiff lawyers. “Such a limitation would have made no sense given that the purpose of selecting bellwether plaintiffs is to reach a global resolution of the issues and claims in the litigation,”​ they added.

Additionally, Syngenta is trying to skew who is represented in the test trial, by selecting only small farms with fewer damages, the lawyers said.    

“This is a really massive litigation, and it involves allegations of huge dollar amounts,”​ Kristine Tidgren, staff attorney for the Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation, told FeedNavigator. “There is always going to be sparing and back and forth.”

Case review

In November 2014, ADM sued the Swiss biotech firm, alleging it sold corn seed with traits not approved in all major export markets and didn’t take “reasonable stewardship practices”​ to stop the resulting crop from contaminating the rest of the US corn supply.

The move followed legal action against Syngenta brought by US farmers in October 2014, as well as lawsuits against it filed by agribusiness giant, Cargill and livestock feed exporter, Trans Coastal Supply, in September that year, claiming losses in the millions linked to China’s rejection of US crops containing the controversial strain.

Syngenta had sought approval for its Viptera seed from China in 2010 – it was only granted in late 2014.

In September of this year, Lungstrum partially denied Syngenta’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits from the agribusiness parties, with some of the complaints against it moving forward as a result.

Bellwether process

A bellwether process is often used in a large litigation or with mass tort litigation to address the situation on a more manageable scale, said Tidgren.

“It gives an idea of what kind of defenses and claims are going to be successful, and it lets both sides understand how cases will be received in the real world and in front of a jury,”​ she said.

The process also can be used to keep costs down, and be a step toward eventual settlement, she said. Most large lawsuits, like the Syngenta corn case, either end up being settled or dismissed.

Both sides in the case are picking representatives for the bellwether pool in an attempt to present the range of the cases involved, said Tidgren.

What’s next?

Deadlines have already been set for the next steps of the bellwether process after a December 14 status conference, said court officials in case documents.

Any motion to dismiss a case or have it removed from the Kansas court to a different venue has to be turned in by January 8 and any response to that challenge is due by January 22, said court officials. Any final reply is due by January 29.

Additionally, a list of the selections made for the bellwether pool has to be submitted by January 22, after which there will be a short period for objections and responses, said officials.   

“Once the pools are selected they’ll go into discovery, and it won’t be as public,”​ said Tidgren. 

Written discovery is set to be finished by March 15 and depositions by May 2, said court officials. 

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