2,000 plaintiffs consolidated in Syngenta corn seed lawsuit

DES MOINES, Iowa -- About 2,000 farmers, grain handlers and corn exporters have filed lawsuits against Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta now that a federal judge has ruled their cases have merit to move forward.

The lawsuits allege Syngenta's introduction of a new genetically modified corn seed in 2011 interrupted trade with China and harmed the market for U.S. corn by depressing the commodity's price. That cost the U.S. corn industry an estimated $1 billion to $3 billion.

On Sept. 11, U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum denied Syngenta's motion to dismiss the case, rejecting for now the company's argument that it had no duty to protect the farmers and other agribusinesses that handle and trade corn. A federal court panel decided in December to consolidate all of the Syngenta cases in Lungstrum's court in Kansas City, Kan.

More than 1,860 cases have been transferred from 22 states, including 1,300 cases from Minnesota.

Since Lungstrum's decision in early September, hundreds more lawsuits have been filed including more than 200 in South Dakota and more than 300 in Iowa.

The dispute centers on Syngenta's sale of Agrisure Viptera, a seed genetically altered to contain a protein that kills corn-eating bugs such as earworms and cutworms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved it in 2010, and Syngenta first sold it to farmers in 2011.

China, a growing importer of U.S. corn that refuses to buy genetically modified crops it hasn't tested, had not approved Viptera when Syngenta began selling it. In November 2013, China discovered the Viptera corn trait in several U.S. shipments and began rejecting U.S. corn imports in February 2014. The lawsuits say the Chinese rejected more than 131 million bushels.

Syngenta attorney Michael Jones said it's not surprising that Lungstrum allowed the case to proceed at this early stage. After each side conducts interviews and fact gathering to build their cases, there will be another point at which Syngenta may file a summary judgment motion asking the judge to dismiss the case.

Lungstrum also will decide whether to certify the case as a class action lawsuit and allow many of the farmers and agribusinesses to be represented in a central trial.

"If the judge agrees and this goes forward as a class action, every corn farmer in the United States that lost money is covered by that class action. It is an enormous case," said Jayne Conroy, a New York attorney on the plaintiffs' executive committee coordinating the cases. "This is by far the largest agricultural case that has gone forward."

On Oct. 21, Lungstrum decided to first try a small number of representative bellwether cases to "to determine the nature and strength of the claims." Four farmers and two plaintiffs representing nonfarmer agribusinesses will go to trial first in the test cases, the first of which is scheduled for trial in June 2017.

Business on 11/03/2015