Written by: Amie Alexander, JD/MPS Candidate, William H. Bowen School of Law

A Washington Court of Appeals has upheld a trial court’s summary judgment ruling against the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association for violations of various state campaign laws in its actions opposing a constitutional amendment that would have required the labeling of genetically modified foods. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s imposition of treble damages and remanded the case back to the trial court for further consideration.

The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) appealed a trial court’s ruling, which imposed $18 million in civil penalties for violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA). The violations related to an Initiative 522 (I-522), 2013 Washington ballot initiative. I-522, if passed, would have required the labeling of packaged food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In its opposition of I-522, GMA created a separate account funded by member companies’ contributions to address GMO labeling issues. GMA spent approximately $11 million from this account opposing I-522. GMA was cited for violations of the FCPA because it did not register as a political committee with the Public Disclosure Commission, did not comply with reporting and disclosure requirements for political committees, and failed to disclose the companies contributing to the account.

The trial court held that GMA became a political committee when the account was created, and that GMA violated various FCPA reporting and disclosure requirements by concealing the source of the contributions. The trial court imposed $6 million in penalties for the FCPA violations and trebled the amount as punitive damages for GMA’s intentional conduct.

This court upheld the trial court’s ruling that GMA became a political committee. However, the appellate court disagreed with the trial court, stating that the trial court “erred in ruling that GMA did not need to subjectively intend to violate the law in order to be subject to treble damages.”  Thus, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the State, but reversed the trial court’s imposition of treble damages against GMA. The case was remanded for further proceedings to determine whether GMA is subject to treble damages.