Justices' decision clears way for suing pesticide makers in state courts

EPA approval of product not shield from litigation

April 28, 2005|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The makers of pesticides and weed killers can be sued and forced to pay damages if their products cause harm, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, rejecting the view of the Bush administration and reversing a series of lower courts.

The 7-2 ruling permits lawsuits by farmers whose crops are damaged by pesticides, as well as suits by consumers who are hurt by bug sprays.

In their first ruling on the scope of the 1972 pesticide law, the justices said the federal requirement that chemical companies submit their products for approval by the Environmental Protection Agency did not "give pesticide manufacturers virtual immunity" from being sued if those products proved to be harmful to people, plants or animals.

Yesterday's ruling restores the law to what it had been before the 1990s.

During most of the 20th century, Americans who were hurt or killed by toxic chemicals could sue the maker of the product in state court. But more recently, lawyers for the chemical industry convinced courts in much of the nation that the federal law regulating these pesticides barred such lawsuits in state courts.

Four years ago, the Bush administration adopted this pro-industry position, saying that once a pesticide or weed killer had won EPA approval, it had a federal shield against being sued - even if the product did not work as advertised.

The case of 29 Texas peanut farmers illustrated the issue. Five years ago, they were persuaded by agents of Dow Chemical Co. to try Strongarm, a powerful, newly approved weed killer. The farmers say Strongarm killed not just their weeds, but also their peanut plants.

But before they could file their claims, lawyers for Dow went to a U.S. district court in Lubbock, Texas, and asserted a shield against such suits.

A federal judge agreed with Dow and dismissed the farmers' suit. And the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed as well.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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