by Carey Gillam
Syngenta AG is facing a growing number of U.S. lawsuits over allegations that its paraquat herbicide causes Parkinson’s disease, with a Fresno, California man pushing for an expedited trial that potentially would start within the next few months, and multiple plaintiffs’ lawyers jockeying for power and influence over future trial proceedings.
Plaintiff George Isaak used paraquat to treat weeds on orchard and vineyard property from 1964 through 2004, mixing, loading and spraying the pesticide routinely before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in May of 2020, according to his lawsuit.
Isaak used a 200-gallon “spraying rig” on the 60-acre farm where he raised peaches, nectarines, almonds, pistachios, and grapes before retiring in 2005. Isaak, 84, now has such severe Parkinson’s symptoms that he has suffered several falls, finds it hard to speak, and is confined to a wheelchair, according to his lawyers.
Isaak attorney Mike Miller said his client has been left with “horrible” injuries from Parkinson’s.
Isaak should now be given a trial date no later than January due to his decline in cognition and overall debilitation to his health, according to a court filing by The Miller Firm and co-counsel.
Isaak “had no reason to suspect that chronic, low-dose exposure to Paraquat could cause neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease,” the lawsuit states. But evidence will show, the lawsuit contends, that the paraquat use was a “substantial factor in causing Plaintiff George Isaak to suffer severe and permanent physical injuries, pain, mental anguish, and disability, and will continue to do so for the remainder of Plaintiff George Isaak’s life.”
Carol Isaak, George Isaak’s wife, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit and is seeking a claim for loss of consortium.
There are hundreds of cases pending in state and federal courts around the country, according to a June 22 court filing. The plaintiffs in those cases all allege Syngenta was aware of the risks but failed to warn users.
Syngenta, which is owned by a Chinese chemical company, has denied the allegations, and is seeking to dismiss, or limit the lawsuits. The company filed a “partial motion to dismiss” in federal court on Sept. 13, citing various state law provisions in asking the court to dismiss claims “for breach of warranty, fraud, and violation of certain consumer protection statutes.”
Along with Syngenta, the defendants include Chevron Phillips Chemical Cmpany LP, and Chevron USA, Inc. All have denied any liability.
Infighting among plaintiffs’ lawyers
Syngenta said in a Sept. 17 court filing that it opposes the granting of an expedited trial, known as a “preference” trial, for Isaak.
“Mr. Isaak has presented no evidence regarding his alleged paraquat exposures, and his medical records and doctor’s declaration cast doubt on whether he actually has Parkinson’s disease,” the company said in its filing.
Syngenta noted that there are many other plaintiffs expected to request preference trials.
In addition to the objection from Syngenta, Isaak’s lawyers effort to obtain court approval for a preference trial has come into conflict with an effort by other attorneys representing other plaintiffs in the paraquat litigation.
Plaintiffs law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger is seeking to create a special committee made up of plaintiffs’ lawyers that would evaluate and screen cases seeking preference trials. Typically such requests for expedited trials go directly to a judge.
The firm said a committee was needed because many of the plaintiffs in the overall paraquat litigation would “likely qualify” for preference. They are proposing a protocol implemented by a five-member committee of plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“The majority of the plaintiffs, including both filed and unfiled cases known to plaintiffs’ counsel, are over the age of 65. The reality of these cases is that there are many plaintiffs, as well as many potential plaintiffs, whose disease progression is unstable and who have a real and substantial danger of losing their ability to testify, or losing their ability to meaningfully utilize their compensation, if their trials are not prioritized,” the firm stated in a court filing.
The firm added in a separate filing: “An uncontrolled race to file competing preference motions risks sending a plaintiff to trial who does not represent the plaintiff population. And should the initial trials be ultimately unsuccessful, it jeopardizes the rights of all remaining plaintiffs in the proceeding.”
Isaak’s lawyers oppose the formation of such a committee and filed a memorandum explaining that opposition on Sept. 17, arguing that the use of a preference committee is “unconstitutional on its face.”
Whether or not a plaintiff meets the criteria deserving of a preference trial should not be left up to the arbitrary nature of a committee of other plaintiffs’ attorneys, they said.
The attorneys registering opposition to the preference committee additionally allege that the Walkup firm has a conflict of interest because it has already reached a “large, lucrative” settlement agreement with Syngenta for some of its clients, and until that deal is finalized, Syngenta and the other defendants still could walk away from the deal.
Thus, the Walkup firm is “a conflicted law firm,” the attorneys allege. In addition to The Miller Firm, the law firms registering opposition are the Wagstaff Law Firm and Brady Law Group.
A hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 30.
Battle over discovery documents
The lawyers for plaintiffs have also been fighting over access to internal Syngenta corporate documents and other evidence obtained as part of court-ordered “discovery.”
Over the last few years, Syngenta and the other defendants turned over millions of documents to Missouri lawyer Steve Tillery in his representation of a paraquat lawsuit titled Hoffman V. Syngenta, that was pending in St. Clair County, Illinois. The Hoffman case had been set to go to trial earlier this year but Tillery and the defendants agreed to a settlement and no trial was held.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs pursuing trials want to make use of the materials already turned over in the Hoffman case, including internal corporate documents as well as depositions and expert reports. Tillery and Syngenta objected to sharing some of the materials but were ordered to do so by the federal judge overseeing consolidated paraquat proceedings in the Northern District of California.
Several scientific studies have linked paraquat to Parkinson’s, including a large study of U.S. farmers jointly overseen by multiple U.S. government agencies. Farmers use paraquat in the production of many crops, including corn, soy and cotton. The Agricultural Health Study (AHS) said it found that “exposure to agricultural pesticides may increase a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.” In 2011, AHS researchers reported that “participants who used paraquat or rotenone were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as people who didn’t use these chemicals.”
Syngenta argues that newer and more robust research, including by AHS scientists, has discounted a tie between paraquat and Parkinson’s.
A recent paper from AHS researchers stated that “Extensive literature suggests an association between general pesticide use and Parkinson’s disease (PD). However, with few exceptions, little is known about associations between specific pesticides and PD.”
Because the paraquat litigation is expected to continue to grow, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) in Washington, D.C. approved the consolidation of pretrial proceedings in the Northern District of California, the same federal court that is overseeing the U.S. Roundup MDL.
Similarly, several other cases are consolidated in Judicial Council Coordination Proceedings in Contra Costa County Superior Court in California.