When a $1.51 billion settlement — a record amount — was recently announced between Syngenta and U.S. corn farmers involved class-action litigation, questions naturally followed.
What precipitated the settlement (www.syngentacornlitigation.com)? Who is eligible for payments? What must they do to collect?
Attorney Don Downing of Gray, Ritter & Graham, P.C. spoke with Delta Farm Press to provide some answers. Among his comments:
On the background…
“The litigation has been going on for years. Syngenta sold two (GMO corn) varieties that weren’t approved in China. They were warned in advance that if they did that, China would stop taking our corn. Sure enough, that’s what happened — the price of corn went down and U.S. corn farmers were hurt. That’s the basic premise of the litigation.
“We litigated this and took depositions all over the world because Syngenta has operations all over the world. Millions of documents were produced and reviewed.
“It went to trial last year in June in Kansas. Most of the cases filed by farmers around the country were sent to a federal judge in Kansas City. He was the one who organized the litigation in the federal courts. There was separate litigation in Minnesota state court.
“The (federal) judge certified a nationwide class and also a bunch of state classes of corn farmers. One of the state classes he certified was the Kansas class, about 7,300 corn farmers. The Kansas class was the first corn trial in the country.”
On what Downing and colleagues were seeking…
“We asked the jury for $217.7 million in damages — compensatory damages that our experts determined Kansas farmers lost — and that’s what they awarded. We also asked for punitive damages, but they didn’t award those.
“After the jury came back, the judge basically ordered the parties to get to the settlement table after both sides had had a chance to see how a jury would react to the evidence.
“Since then, there’s been a lot negotiation.” In mid-March, “we were finally able to advise the court in a formal way that we’d reached a settlement agreement with Syngenta on behalf of not only the corn farmers in the country but ethanol plants and grain-handling facilities, as well. That’s the $1.51 billion settlement.
“Because it’s a nationwide class settlement, the judge still has to approve. So, yesterday we submitted the settlement formally, asked the judge to preliminarily approve it and gave him reasons why he should.”
On what happens next…
“Next, if he does preliminarily approve it, notices will be mailed to 600,000 corn farmers across the country, ethanol plants, grain-handling facilities. There will be a lot of advertising about the settlement, social media, just trying to get the word out to everybody. This is one thing (Delta Farm Press) can be helpful to farmers on.
“The key thing farmers need to know about the settlement is they need to file a claim form in order to get money. The form is very short and easy to fill out. Basically, they’re authorizing the FSA to release what’s known as a FSA-578 form to the claims administrator so they can calculate every farmer’s damages.
“If there’s preliminary approval by the judge, the notices will go out. If any corn farmer doesn’t want a part of the settlement they can opt out. They can bring their own lawsuit if they choose. Or, if anyone doesn’t like the settlement, they have a right to object — ‘we don’t like the settlement, we don’t think it’s fair.’
“Then, there will be a period of time, six months, for farmers who want to file claim forms to be part of the settlement. After that happens, the judge will consider any objections to the settlement by anyone and make a final decision on approval. If anyone still objects, they can appeal it to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, another federal appellate court.
“Long story short, we don’t expect any money to be going out to farmers until sometime in the first half of 2019. That’s because of the extended process required under federal rules and law.”
What’s the window for farmers to file notice?
“From the date the notices go out — and we expect that to happen sometime in April — farmers will have 150 days to get their claim forms in. That’s plenty of time.
“But corn farmers, when they get these in the mail, they shouldn’t throw them in the trash can. They need to open them, read them, print out a claim form. For those who use computers, they can also submit a form online.”
What’s the time frame for when damages occurred?
“The price was affected, according to our experts, began with the 2013-14 marketing year and continued for five years. So, from the 2013-14 through 2017-18 marketing years.”