MDL Roundup: Panel Rules On Consolidation for Paraquat, Crop Antitrust, and Baby Food Cases

On Monday and Tuesday the Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation filed transfer orders in multiple agricultural legal matters which had arguments presented at a hearing in May.  Each of the matters are now consolidated before one court except the allegations that baby foods negligently contain significant levels of heavy metals, where the panel denied a transfer

The panel ruled to consolidate allegations that the herbicide paraquat causes Parkinson’s Disease in the Southern District of Illinois, antitrust allegations against major seed and agriculture companies in the Eastern District of Missouri, and an action regarding attorney’s fees from prior Syngenta corn litigation in the District of Kansas, where similar actions are already being heard. 

The allegations regarding paraquat are primarily filed against Syngenta and Chevron, two companies which produce and developed the herbicides. The MDL transfer order explained that the motion to consolidate the lawsuits included 14 lawsuits in 6 districts, and that there are an additional 77 related actions.  The consolidated lawsuit will be heard by Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel, who already presides over 20 of the lawsuits. Law Street reported that as the uncertainty regarding consolidation in these lawsuits is resolved, even more paraquat-based lawsuits could be filed. The only opposition to centralizing these cases came from one plaintiff in the Eastern District of Missouri. 

The panel ruled that as the matter would likely require the evaluation of “complex scientific and regulatory issues,” centralization would be helpful in eliminating duplicative discovery, conserving resources, and avoiding inconsistent rulings. 

In the antitrust allegations regarding crop inputs, five plaintiffs in the Southern District of Illinois requested the consolidation, which includes 13 actions and 11 potentially-related actions. The panel found that centralization in the Eastern District of Missouri “will serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of the litigation.”

This group of lawsuits each alleged that agricultural companies organized to keep electronic sales companies out of the market and fix prices for seeds, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. The complaints are representative of a nationwide class of farmers or others who purchased crop inputs. 

In addressing the centralized lawsuits regarding attorney’s fees following a Syngenta corn lawsuit, the panel agreed to send a lawsuit filed by two law firms against a third, purporting that it owes them $10 million in fees for work they did on the case, to a previous consolidated matter. According to the panel’s transfer order, the plaintiffs opposed the transfer saying that it would be inappropriate.

Although some of the baby food lawsuits were previously consolidated in the Eastern District of New York, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ruled against centralizing the 38 lawsuits filed in 10 different districts in a specific court as some of the defendants had argued. According to the filing, 48 additional actions were filed in 12 districts after the motion to consolidate was filed. 

“The motion elicited numerous and varied responses,” the panel noted, citing support from plaintiffs but disagreement in location, and opposition from several plaintiffs and defendants. The panel determined “centralization is not necessary for the convenience of the parties and witnesses or to further the just and efficient conduct of the litigation,” noting that each defendant produces their own baby foods with different procedures and the claims are “likely to rise or fall on facts specific to that defendant.” 

The panel cited that they are cautious with “industry-wide centralization,” however, the panel also said it is not sure if defendant-specific consolidation is warranted either, noting that some have been transferred to the court in the defendant’s home district already. 

These lawsuits regarding baby food allege that the companies falsely represented the foods to consumers and did not disclose that they contained small amounts of heavy metals which could harm infants and children. The group of lawsuits were filed shortly after a U.S. House Subcommittee released a report discussing the heavy metals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has commented that small levels of heavy metals are expected and that it is working with baby food companies to reduce the levels even further.