Supreme Court Upholds Individual's Right to Sue Pesticide
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
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
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
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
“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
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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