By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Farmers are receiving a lot of attention from law firms these days, from video mailers to offers of free consultations, dinners, hats and more.  The purpose of these marketing efforts is to entice farmers away from participating in the current class action lawsuit against Syngenta.  Law firms want farmers to exclude themselves from the class action litigation and participate in individual lawsuits their firms would bring against Syngenta.  With a deadline of April 1 looming, farmers must decide whether to remain in or step away from the class action lawsuit.

The class action lawsuit, known as “In re Syngenta AG MIR162 Corn Litigation,” is pending before the U.S. District Court in Kansas.  It is one of two major lawsuits regarding corn rejected by China in 2013 because China had not yet approved Syngenta’s Duracade and Viptera brands of genetically-modified corn.  The lawsuit consolidated hundreds of similar federal court cases that all claimed that Syngenta should be liable for the drop in corn prices that followed China’s rejections because Syngenta stated that it had obtained all necessary regulatory approvals for Duracade and Viptera, but instead released the seed before receiving China’s approval.

Class Certification

Last September, the court certified the litigation as a class action lawsuit, which allows the case to commence on behalf of all class members.  Any farmer that fits within the class definitions is automatically included in the lawsuit and does not have to pursue individual litigation against Syngenta.  The court established a nationwide class of “producers,” defined as any person or entity listed as a producer on an FSA-578 form filed with the USDA who priced corn for sale after November 18, 2013 and who did not purchase Viptera or Duracade corn seed (farmers who used Syngenta’s seed have different legal claims).  The nationwide class is for producers bringing claims under federal law.  The court also certified eight state classes for producers bringing claims under state laws, including Ohio.  Syngenta appealed the class certification, but the Tenth District Court of Appeals denied the appeal.

Ohio farmers who fit the definition of “producers” are now automatically members of both the nationwide and Ohio classes.  This means that every Ohio producer can receive a share of any award or settlement that results from the litigation, with required documentation.  However, Ohio producers may choose to exclude themselves from or “opt out” of their classes and bring their own individual actions against Syngenta.  The district court required attorneys for the class action suit to notify all potential producers of the lawsuit and of a producer’s right to be excluded from the litigation.   A producer must send an exclusion request by April 1, 2017, following the process for exclusion stated in the court’s order, available here.

Pros and Cons of Staying in the Class

A major benefit of remaining in the class action lawsuit is convenience.  Class members in the lawsuit have no responsibility for the proceedings, which falls upon the attorneys who represent the entire class.  However, convenience comes at the cost of deferring decision making authority and losing a share of the award or settlement to court-ordered attorney fees, although class members may file objections to such decisions.  Exclusion from the class gives producers freedom to pursue their own actions, which will likely lead to a stronger role in decision making and the ability to negotiate attorney fees.  Exclusion also allows a farmer who may not agree with the litigation on principal to dissociate from the lawsuit.

What’s Next?

The court has scheduled “bellwether” cases in the lawsuit, which will go to trial in June.  Bellwether cases are chosen to be representative of the class.  Allowing these cases to go to trial gives an indication of how the litigation will play out—the strength of each side, how juries react and how the law applies to the situation.   Upon completion of the bellwether cases, both sides should be better able to decide whether to settle the lawsuit or continue with litigation.

The U.S. District Court’s website for the Syngenta class action lawsuit is http://www.ksd.uscourts.gov/syngenta-ag-mir162-corn-litigation/