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With nearly 80 paraquat lawsuits pending throughout the federal court system, and hundreds of additional claims likely to be filed in the coming months by agricultural workers diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease following exposure to the herbicide, a panel of federal judges has decided to centralize all pretrial proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.
Paraquat is a weed and grass killer manufactured and sold since 1962, which has been widely used on a number of farms throughout the U.S. in recent years. The herbicide is also sold under a number of different brand name through farm supply stores, including Gramoxone, Blanco, Cyclone, Helmquat, Bonedry and others.
Although it has been banned in several countries, paraquat remains on the market in the United States under restrictions that require users to go through a special training and certification process on the safe handling of paraquat, since ingesting even a small amount can quickly result in death. However, according to information raised in a growing number of product liability lawsuits, the manufacturers withheld information and warnings about the Parkinson’s disease risk from paraquat, which may develop after routine exposure while spraying, mixing or otherwise coming into contact with the herbicide.
To help coordinate and manage the growing litigation, a group of plaintiffs asked the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) to centralize cases filed throughout the federal court system before one judge in the Northern District of California, to help reduce duplicative discovery into common issues in the claims, avoid conflicting pretrial rulings from different courts and serve the convenience of common parties, witnesses and the judicial system.
Syngenta and Chevron agreed the paraquat litigation should be consolidated, but called for the cases to be consolidated in Minnesota or Northern Texas federal courts.
Following oral arguments in late May, the JPML issued a transfer order (PDF) this week, indicating that the cases will be centralized in the Southern District of Illinois before Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel, who is already presiding over 20 paraquat cases in her court.
“While any number of proposed transferee districts could ably handle this litigation, we are persuaded that the Southern District of Illinois is the appropriate transferee district for these cases. Illinois ranks in the top five states in paraquat usage,” the JPML order states. “According to counsel for plaintiffs, paraquat litigation has been proceeding in Illinois state court for several years, and the most advanced state court action is nearing trial.”
With the establishment of a paraquat multidistrict litigation (MDL), cases filed in U.S. District Courts nationwide will be transferred to one court for management, and coordinated discovery into common issues that impact all cases. It is also likely that the Court will schedule a series of early “bellwether” trials, designed to help gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence that will be repeated throughout the litigation. However, if paraquat settlements or another resolution for is not reached following the MDL proceedings, each individual paraquat case may later be returned to the U.S. District Court where it was originally filed for a separate trial in the future.