A jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on Friday ruled in favor of 7,000 farmers against Syngenta. The class-action suit alleged the Swiss agribusiness committed negligence by prematurely introducing a variety of genetically modified corn called Agrisure Viptera (and another called Agrisure Duracade) in 2011. At the time, Viptera was approved in many key markets including the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But Syngenta assured farmers it would be approved in China, an increasingly important corn buyer, in time for the harvest—and when it wasn’t, the plaintiffs lost a lot of money.
The jury deliberated for half a day before finding Syngenta negligent, awarding $217,700,000 in compensatory damages to the corn growers, according to a statement published today by Gray Reed & McGraw, a firm co-representing the farmers in the case. The four co-lead counsel issued the following statement: “The verdict is great news for corn farmers in Kansas and corn growers throughout the country who were seriously hurt by Syngenta’s actions. This is only the beginning. We look forward to pursuing justice for thousands more corn farmers in the months ahead.”
The case centered around the farmers’ claim that Syngenta acted with negligence when it assured farmers their product would be marketable in China. The plaintiffs alleged Syngenta knew ahead of time that China would not approve Viptera in time for the 2011 crop, yet marketed it to farmers anyway—obscuring the risk that their crop might be rejected by a key importer. Syngenta, on the other hand, claimed that China was a relatively small market when it started selling Viptera to farmers, and that it had not been negligent because the corn was approved in other major export markets. The farmers claimed that Syngenta knew China would start importing a lot more American corn. (In 2011, China wasn’t importing all that much, but imports spiked soon after, and the country quickly became one of U.S. corn exporters’ largest markets).
Even though Viptera wasn’t approved in time, China initially accepted shipments anyway. Starting in late 2013, though, China began rejecting shipments that carried the genetically modified corn. Since rejected corn shipments contained a mixture of Viptera and non-Viptera corn, China’s refusal affected many more farmers than those growing Viptera, and corn prices plummeted worldwide. The farmers claimed China’s rejection caused the bad year; Syngenta claimed prices were already taking a nosedive. I wrote a more detailed backgrounder here.
The Kansas farmers requested $217 million in actual damages and $780 million in punitive damages. Another larger case, which involves 60,000 plaintiffs, goes to trial in Minnesota on July 10. There are eight total class action suits pending against Syngenta over Viptera.
This trial, as well as the upcoming Minnesota trial, are considered bellwether cases. The remaining six class action suits are likely to result in similar verdicts. Syngenta will move toward an appeal and continue to “defend the rights of American farmers.”
In a statement, Syngenta reiterated its stance that it commercialized Viptera in compliance with U.S. law. “Syngenta believes that American farmers should have access to the latest U.S.-approved technology to help them increase their productivity and yield,” the statement reads. “American farmers shouldn’t have to rely on a foreign government to decide what products they can use on their farms.”
An interesting twist to keep an eye on in the meantime: Syngenta is in the midst of a merger with Chinese state-owned company ChemChina. If its appeal is not successful, the $43 billion price tag might’ve just gotten more expensive—by $218 million.