Bayer CropScience LP must pay about $2 million for losses sustained by two Missouri farmers when an experimental variety of rice the company was testing cross-bred with their crops, a federal jury ruled.
The verdict in St. Louis came in the first trial in what is intended to be a series of test cases against the unit of Leverkusen, Germany-based Bayer AG. The jury of four men and five women began deliberating on Dec. 2, about a month after it began hearing claims brought by Kenneth Bell and Johnny Hunter.
Farmers from Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have filed more than 1,000 similar cases against Bayer since the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August 2006 that trace amounts of the genetically modified LibertyLink rice were found in U.S. long-grain rice stocks.
Bayer and Louisiana State University had been testing the rice, which was bred to be resistant to Bayer’s Liberty-brand herbicide, at a school-run facility in Crowley, Louisiana. The variety eventually “contaminated” more than 30 percent of U.S. ricelands, said Don Downing, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, at the start of the trial.
The company denied the testing program had been negligently managed.
The jury awarded only compensatory damages and rejected the farmers’ request for a punitive judgment. Grant Davis, one of the farmer’s lawyers, had told jurors an $80 million punitive award was “not too much to send a message.”
In closing arguments, Downing told the jury that Bayer CropScience officials “were not careful.”
Within four days of the 2006 USDA announcement, rice futures plunged, costing U.S. growers about $150 million, according to a consolidated complaint filed by the farmers. Exports fell as the European Union, Japan, Russia and other overseas markets slowed purchases of U.S.-grown long-grain rice for testing or stopped importing it, the growers said.
The jury awarded Bell about $1.96 million and Hunter $53,336. Bayer’s negligence cost Bell more than $2.2 million, Downing said during the trial. Hunter quit rice farming and lost about $50,000 because of the contamination, Downing said.
“This jury can send a message that you are not going to be able to contaminate our food,” Downing said of Bayer during the punitive damages portion of the trial.
While the USDA later approved Bayer CropScience’s biotech rice to be grown and sold for human consumption, it hasn’t been commercially marketed.
The USDA never determined how the LibertyLink rice had entered the nation’s long-grain rice supply, Bayer CropScience’s statement said.
The case is In Re Genetically Modified Rice Litigation, 06-md-01811, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri (St. Louis).