March 30, 2004

Bayer vs. crawfish farmers: Trial ends with $45 million settlement

Lawyers for both sides have reached a preliminary $45 million settlement in the Icon class action suit. "All parties involved in the suit have agreed it is in their mutual interest to reach a settlement rather than continue with the trial," said Gary Bezet, lead council for Bayer CropScience, the makers of Icon. Bezet, who has no plans to appeal, said the matter is now in the hands of the lawyers representing the crawfish farmers and the courts.

"The settlement is a fair resolution for Louisiana's crawfish farmers," said Opelousas Attorney Patrick Morrow, one of a team of lawyers representing the farmers. "Farmers who suffered tremendous declines in their crawfish crops allegedly due to the contamination of their ponds with fipronil have had their day in court and will now be compensated," said Morrow.

The settlement came Monday, the day before closing arguments were to begin in the month-long trial before 27th Judicial District Court Judge James Genovese. Morrow said several steps remain before the matter is finally resolved. The first will be a fairness hearing set for 9:30 a.m. May 17 in Genovese's courtroom in Opelousas. "This will be to determine if the settlement as a whole is fair," Morrow said. "We'll see what the judge does." Genovese has already granted preliminary approval to the settlement.

In preparation for the hearing, Morrow said beginning about April 14 notice will be sent to all potential class members informing them of their right to object. While Morrow is aware of several hundred farmers who believe they were financially harmed by Icon, he believes the case could eventually involve as many as 1,500 Louisiana crawfish farmers and land owners.

In addition to letters to known members of the class, a series of radio and newspaper ads are planned. A Web-site will also be set up in the near future at Should the settlement be ruled fair, a claims office will be set up, most likely in August, where individual farmers can file claims based on their losses. The court has named Pat Juneau as special master. "He will make distributions to the farmers based on their claims forms," Morrow said.

The settlement is the result of almost five years of legal disputes between the makers of Icon and Louisiana crawfish farmers. "It's been a long, hard fought battle," Morrow said. The crawfish industry in South Louisiana collapsed in 1999, dropping from an annual production of more that 40 million pounds to less than 18 million in a single year. Production remained low for years and is only now fully recovering.

Local rice farmers blamed Icon, rice seed treated with the pesticide fipronil, for destroying their crawfish crop and contaminating their fields. Aventis Crop Sciences (now Bayer CropScience), the makers of Icon, blamed drought conditions.

After three years of pretrial maneuvering, the question of who is right was put before an Opelousas jury in early March in what may be the largest trial this area has ever seen. The agreement, coming before the case went to the jury, means that question will not be answered. In entering the settlement agreement, the defendants admitted no liability. The case could have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

In 1999, Aventis, then named Rhone-Poulenc, introduced Icon to control rice weevils, a scourge of one of Louisiana's largest cash crops. The pesticide was designed to wash off as the seed was planted under water and thus kill the water weevils. The suit, first filed in December 2001 in St. Landry Parish, asserted that Aventis "negligently tested, formulated and manufactured Icon," resulting in crawfish kills.

William Johnson / Louisiana Gannett News