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With a growing number of Paraquat lawsuits now being filed against Syngenta by farmers and other individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the global agricultural company has filed a declaratory judgment action against more than 100 insurance companies, which it says should provide coverage for litigation costs, damages and potential settlements.
The complaint (PDF) was brought by Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC and Syngenta Corporation on May 17, indicating that the insurance carriers are breaching various contracts for coverage provided in prior decades to the agricultural company and other predecessor entities.
The action comes as hundreds of product liability lawsuits are being brought against Syngenta for its role in manufacturing and selling Paraquat over several decades. The controversial herbicide is being blamed for causing farm workers and others in the agricultural industry to develop Parkinson’s disease after spraying, mixing or handling Paraquat chemicals.
Paraquat is widely used throughout the U.S. as a grass and weed killer. However, it is highly toxic, and known to be lethal if only a small amount is ingested. As a result, the herbicide is restricted in the United States, requiring individuals to go through a training program before purchasing or using the product. However, according to recently filed lawsuits, even handling of the herbicide according to instructions provided by the manufacturer may increase the risk of users suffering a neurological disorder like Parkinson’s.
According to claims brought in state and federal courts nationwide over the past year, Syngenta and co-defendants knew or should have known about the link between Paraquat and Parkinson’s disease for decades, but continued to sell the herbicide without adequate warnings.
In this Paraquat insurance lawsuit, Syngenta indicates that “primary policies” were provided by Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. and Travelers Casualty and Surety Co, which should cover litigation costs and damages. However, the Hartford policy only provided coverage for Syngenta’s predecessor, Imperial Chemical, from 1971 through 1974, and Travelers’ coverage was only from 1974 through 1986, with excess liability coverage from 1972 to 1973.
Syngenta argues in the complaint that many of the claims filed in recent months involve allegations that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by exposure to Paraquat that occurred over the course of several decades, dating back to the time when the older policies were in force. Therefore, the company argues that those insurance companies should be required to cover legal costs outlined in polices that lapsed decades ago.
“Syngenta is entitled to coverage of its loss, including defense costs and any liability incurred and to be incurred by Syngenta in connection with the Paraquat Actions under the Primary Policies and the Excess Policies,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants have either denied coverage or refused to acknowledge their obligations.”
Millions in defense costs are likely to be incurred by Syngenta in the coming years, and the company may face billions in liability exposure from verdicts and potential Paraquat settlements for individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The claim for declaratory relief comes while the litigation remains in the very earliest stages, before any discovery or pretrial proceedings have occurred in the vast majority of the claims.
Given common questions of fact and law presented in a rapidly growing number of product liability lawsuits in the federal court system filed over the past few months, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) held hearings last week to consider whether the cases should all be centralized before one judge for coordinated management.
If a Paraquat MDL, or multidistrict litigation, is established, the Court will supervise coordinated discovery into facts common to all claims, and likely establish a “bellwether” process where a small group of representative cases are prepared for early trial dates, to help gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the claims. However, if Syngenta is unable to resolve the litigation or reach Paraquat settlements following the MDL proceedings, hundreds of individual cases may be remanded to different U.S. District Courts nationwide for trial in the coming years.