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Supreme Court Upholds Individual's Right to Sue Pesticide Makers

WASHINGTON, DC, April 27, 2005 (ENS) - The United States Supreme Court today upheld the right of people to sue pesticide manufacturers to compensate them for injuries caused by toxic pesticides.

In Bates v. Dow Agrosciences, the high Court was asked to determine whether federal pesticide law closes the courthouse doors to people injured by pesticides.

In Bates, Texas farmers applied an herbicide called “Strongarm” to prevent weeds in their peanut crops, but Strongarm stunted the peanut crops, causing serious economic damage.

The Texas farmers went to state court in an effort to make the pesticide makers pay for damage to the crops. The pesticide makers claimed they are shielded from court challenges by federal law, the key issue in dispute before the Supreme Court.

The court ruled against the pesticide companies today.

The importance of the case goes beyond the right to recover for crop damage. The Supreme Court also ruled that people harmed by pesticides can hold pesticide companies accountable in state courts for making and distributing dangerous chemicals. Pesticide companies had claimed that federal law shields them from all such suits.

Under federal law, pesticide companies must write and update labels for their products that guard against adverse health and environmental effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves the labels submitted by the companies under a risk-benefit standard that does not prevent all harm to the public.

Dow Agrosciences, joined by the Bush administration, had argued that federal law insulates pesticide makers from injured parties’ lawsuits. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, upholding the right to sue for harm caused by defectively designing, negligent testing, and misbranding a pesticide.

While federal law preempts state labeling “requirements,” in today’s ruling, the Supreme Court recognized that:

A "requirement is a rule of law that must be obeyed; an event, such as a jury verdict, that merely motivates an optional decision is not a requirement."

"The long history of tort litigation against manufacturers of poisonous substances adds force to the basic presumption against pre-emption," the high court ruled. "If Congress had intended to deprive injured parties of a long available form of compensation, it surely would have expressed that intent more clearly.”

The friend of the court brief written by Earthjustice, Public Citizen, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, urged the Court to preserve citizens’ rights to recover for harms caused by pesticides on behalf of: Physicians for Social Responsibility, Farmworker Justice Fund, Beyond Pesticides, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Public Citizen, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Seattle, primary author of a friend of the court brief submitted by these public health and conservation groups, called the decision a victory.

“This decision is a victory for fairness to individuals who are poisoned by toxic pesticides," said Goldman. "This decision makes pesticide manufacturers accountable for the harm their products cause and creates incentives for those corporations to refrain from promoting dangerous pesticides and to make sure their labels disclose and guard against the risks posed by these products.”

A majority, 58 percent, of U.S. adults believe that chemicals and pollutants are more of a threat to people like them now than they were 10 years ago, according to a Harris Interactive online survey of 2,130 U.S. adults conducted between April 15 and 19 for "The Wall Street Journal Online's Health Industry Edition."

The public appears to be more worried about outdoor air pollutants and chemicals than those indoors but about one in five adults report that they or someone in their household has experienced a chronic health problem, such as allergies, lung condition, or chronic fatigue, attributed to indoor air pollutants or chemicals. Many adults are taking proactive steps to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and pollutants, the survey found.

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