Federal court rejects Syngenta’s bid to toss lawsuit over paraquat herbicide

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A federal judge has denied Swiss chemical company Syngenta’s effort to throw out one of a growing number of lawsuits alleging the company’s weed killing products cause Parkinson’s Disease. The decision offers a boost for the expanding number of law firms and plaintiffs making similar claims.

In an April 12 ruling, U.S. District Judge John Ross in the Eastern District of Missouri denied a motion filed by Syngenta and co-defendant Chevron that sought to dismiss a lawsuit brought by married Missouri couple Henry and Tara Holyfield.

“We were pleased that the court denied the motions to dismiss,” said Steven Crick, an attorney with the firm of Humphrey, Farrington & McClain who is representing the Holyfields. “We are also confident that the defendants’ efforts to dismiss or derail the case will continue.”

The lawsuit alleges Henry Holyfield developed Parkinson’s, a debilitating and incurable progressive nervous system disorder, due to his exposure to paraquat in his work as a crop duster. The suit alleges that paraquat was distributed “without adequate instructions on safe use” and “without instructions or warnings that the paraquat was dangerous to health and life and caused disease.”

Syngenta manufacturers and distributes paraquat-based Gramoxone, a widely used weed killer popular with American farmers but banned in more than 30 countries because it is known to be acutely toxic. Syngenta acknowledges the dangers of accidental poisoning associated with paraquat, and its products carry strict warning labels about precautions needed for safe use.

But the company has denied the validity of scientific research that has found associations between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s Disease.

Chevron gained sales and distribution rights for Gramoxone paraquat product in the United States in an agreement with a Syngenta predecessor called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which introduced paraquat-based Gramoxone in 1962. Under a license agreement, Chevron was granted rights to manufacture, use, and sell paraquat formulations in the U.S.

In their motion to dismiss the case, Syngenta and Chevron argued that the Holyfield claims were preempted by federal law governing regulation of paraquat by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Paraquat has been heavily regulated by the EPA for decades under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)…” the motion states. “Through decades of scrutiny, the EPA’s judgment continues to be that paraquat is safe for sale and use so long as EPA-prescribed precautions are taken and instructions are followed. To ensure uniformity, FIFRA prohibits states from imposing any labeling requirements “in addition to or different from” FIFRA’s requirements and EPA-approved labels… But that is exactly what the complaint seeks to do.”

Judge Ross said the argument was flawed. FIFRA states that registration approval by the EPA “does not
constitute an absolute defense” to claims that a product was “mislabeled,” he wrote in his decision. Moreover, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case titled Bates v. Dow Agrosciences established that the EPA’s approval of a product does not rule out claims of a failure to warn brought under state law.

“This Court is aware of no case since Bates in which a court has declined jurisdiction over a FIFRA-related claim pursuant to the doctrine of primary jurisdiction,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “The results of the EPA’s review of paraquat, moreover, will not dictate the success or failure of Plaintiffs’ claims.”

There are currently at least 14 lawsuits filed by eight different law firms in six different federal courts across the country. The lawsuits are all filed on behalf of plaintiffs who have been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder, and they all allege exposure to Syngenta’s paraquat caused their conditions. Several other cases making the same allegations are pending in state courts as well.