US District Judge John W. Lungstrum in Kansas certified nine class actions brought by virtually every corn producer in America who suffered a dramatic loss in the value of their crops in 2013 when Syngenta AG shipped genetically-modified corn to China, which responded by banning all US corn.
The National Grain & Feed Association pegged the market-wide losses at $6.3 billion through August 2015 when China turned away at least 1.45 million metric tons of corn starting in November 2013. It contained genetic trait MIR 162 developed by Syngenta, of Basel, Switzerland, and that variety wasn’t approved by China.
The class actions — which are part of sprawling litigation against the company — are denominated In Re: Syngenta Ag Mir 162 Corn Litigation, Case No. 14-md-2591-jwl in MDL No. 2591.
The judge appointed class counsel to be attorneys Don M. Downing of Gray Ritter & Graham, PC in St. Louis, Patrick J. Stueve of Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP in Kansas City, Scott Powell of Hare Wynn Newell & Newton in Birmingham, AL, and William Chaney of Gray Reed & McGraw in Dallas. They are also lead counsel in the federal MDL litigation.
Judge Lungstrum certified a nationwide class to pursue the Lanham Act (false advertising) claims and certification of eight statewide classes (consisting of producers in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) to pursue negligence claims, as well as tortious interference claims in the Arkansas and Missouri classes, and statutory consumer protection claims in the Illinois and Nebraska classes.
Tens of thousands of plaintiffs
Some 800 federal cases are pending in the multidistrict litigation docket, MDL 2591, before Judge Lungstrum. On top of that:
- Three more federal actions, involving more than 2,800 plaintiffs, are pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois before U.S. District Judge David R. Herndon.
- Approximately 2,375 cases, involving over 20,000 plaintiffs, are pending in the Fourth Judicial District of Hennepin County, Minnesota, and consolidated before Judge Thomas M. Sipkins in a case captioned In re Syngenta Litigation, No. 27-cv-15- 3785.
- In addition, about 200 cases are pending in the Illinois First Judicial Circuit Court before Judge Brad K. Bleyer.
China imports 4 million metric tons of corn per year, and corn is the largest crop export from of the US. Knowing that the clock was ticking on the expiration of its Agrisure Viptera GMO corn patent, Syngenta aggressively commercialized the crop from 2011 to 2014. Despite warnings from industry participants that China had not approved the GMO corn, U.S. exports to China were found to be contaminated with MIR162. China then began rejecting shipments of corn from the U.S.
“These events show corporate greed at its worst. But there is more. To attempt to minimize the perceived impact of its conduct, Syngenta actively misled farmers, industry participants and others about the importance of the Chinese market, the timing and substance of its application for approval in China, the timing of when China was likely to approve MIR162, its ability to “channel” Viptera® to non-Chinese markets and otherwise contain the infiltration of Viptera® into the U.S. corn supply,” the class action complaint states.
Judge Lungstrum rejected all of Syngenta’s arguments against class certification. The company argued unsuccessfully that the terms “corn priced after November 18, 2013” and the term “producer” were vague. The judge said “priced” simply means the date when the price for particular corn is agreed upon by parties for sale, and that producer was defined by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The judge also rejected Syngenta’s argument that the proposed classes were overbroad.
The court added that the plaintiffs do have a class-wide method to show damages and have experts who have created models to determine the per-unit effect on class members’ sales of corn.
“The Court does not foresee any particular difficulties in the management of class actions, and … ascertaining the class members in this case does not require difficult individualized inquiries,” the judge wrote.